Monday marks the annual federal holiday where America honors and mourns those who have died while serving in the U.S. military.

More than a million Americans have been killed in war, per PBS. At one point during World War II, 12% of the U.S. population was serving in the military, now it’s less than 1% of the population. In 1971, Memorial Day officially became a holiday (observed on the last Monday in May) to honor those who have died in war.

The history of the holiday begins in the 19th century with the Civil War.

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One of the earliest celebrations of Decoration Day (later called Memorial Day) happened on May 1, 1865, a month after the Confederacy surrendered to the Union. Insider said, “More than 10,000 formerly enslaved people and white missionaries held a parade where school children, members of the Black Union battalions, and Black religious figures marched around a racetrack in Charleston.”

The article from The New York Tribune detailed how participants heard speeches from Black ministers and sang songs like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” per Insider. Soldiers’ graves were decorated with flowers.

The New York Times said there were instances before and after May 1865 of individuals laying flowers on the graves of soldiers in similar ways. Soon Decoration Day or Memorial Day would be nationally and annually observed.

Three years later, Army Gen. John A. Logan issued a proclamation to commemorate the sacrifices of Union soldiers who died during the Civil War by laying flowers and flags on their graves, according to PBS. He was part of the Grand Army of the Republic — an organization for Union veterans.

In this proclamation, Logan said the day should be “designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” This led to a national observance of Decoration Day held at Arlington National Cemetery, where many soldiers and leaders are laid to rest.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs said officials from Washington, D.C., gave speeches and members of the Grand Army of the Republic — an organization of Union veterans — as well as other participants laid flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers. During the Civil War, 498,332 U.S. military personnel died, according to PBS.

Ohio congressman and Union Maj. Gen. James Garfield was among those who gave an address. He said, “By the happy suggestion of a great society, assemblies like this are gathering at this hour in every State in the Union. Thousands of soldiers are to-day turning aside in the march of life to visit the silent encampments of dead comrades who once fought by their side.”

In the subsequent couple years, the day transitioned from solely commemorating soldiers who died during the Civil War to include all American soldiers who died during war.

It became known as a day of patriotism. The New York Times quoted from an article published on May 31, 1870, which said with the exception of Independence Day, there was “no day that calls out the patriotic feelings of our people more than ‘Memorial Day,’” which, the article said, was a national holiday not by any enactment by the legislature but by “the general consent of the people.”

How Memorial Day became an American tradition

Annually on May 30, leaders and participants would gather at Arlington Cemetery and listen to speeches about fallen American soldiers. National leader of the abolitionist movement Frederick Douglass was among those who spoke. He said, “The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.”

Celebrations of Decoration Day continued. Northern states began adopting the holiday and each state did so by 1890, according to Until the end of World War I, southern states celebrated Decoration Day on a different day.

As World War I came to an end, the holiday’s name was changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day. According to the National World War I Museum and Memorial, the YMCA’s paper “The Daily Rumor” recorded soldiers observing the day in 1918. It included a military parade, athletic competitions, a baseball game between military police and trench mortars as well as speeches and songs.

By 1971, Memorial Day became a federal holiday, which is still celebrated. The holiday is commemorated in a similar way to its origins — there are speeches given by officials in Washington and in Arlington National Cemetery and local cemeteries, while people who are mourning and remembering fallen military personnel place flowers, wreaths and flags on their graves.

On the 100th anniversary of Logan’s proclamation for Decoration Day, then President Ronald Reagan gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery and said, “Today is the day we put aside to remember fallen heroes and to pray that no heroes will ever have to die for us again. It’s a day of thanks for the valor of others, a day to remember the splendor of America and those of her children who rest in this cemetery and others. It’s a day to be with the family and remember.”

After telling stories of fallen soldiers, then President Barack Obama said in 2015, “My fellow Americans, this hallowed ground is more than the final resting place of heroes; it is a reflection of America itself. It’s a reflection of our history — the wars we’ve waged for democracy, the peace we’ve laid to preserve it. It’s a reflection of our diversity — men and women of all backgrounds, all races and creeds and circumstances and faiths, willing to defend and die for the ideals that bind us as one nation.”

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The day holds a lot of meaning and importance, especially for those closely connected to people who died while serving. Local VFW Post Commander Jeff Sherman said to ABC 11 News, “To remember the sacrifice that each and every one of those veterans who laid their lives down, what they did. I came home. Some of my friends did not. It is extremely imperative that we as a national remember those that do for us without asking.”

Remembering why we forever need to defend freedom and liberty

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

When soldiers die in battle, they sometimes cannot be identified. As a result, the U.S. created the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is in Arlington National Cemetery. In 1920, World War I veteran and New York Congressman Hamilton Fish Jr. proposed legislation “to bring home the body of an unknown American warrior who in himself represents no section, creed or race in the late war and who typifies, moreover, the soul of America, and the supreme sacrifice of her heroic dead.”

The tomb was created and there are three figures on it, representing peace, victory and valor. The tomb itself has the inscription, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” Today, there are unknown soldiers who rest in the tomb from several wars while a guard watches over the tomb.

The Tomb Guard marches 21 steps and faces east for 21 seconds, then faces north for 21 seconds and then marches 21 steps again. According to Arlington National Cemetery, “The number 21 symbolizes the highest symbolic military honor that can be bestowed: the 21-gun salute.”

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