Today is Memorial Day. It's the federal holiday set aside to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for American freedom on battlefields here at home and across the world.
Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day and traces its history to May 30, 1865, when a group of freed slaves gathered at the site of a former Confederate prison camp in Charleston, S.C., to take the bodies of Union soldiers from a mass grave and bury them in individual plots. The former slaves decorated the graves with flowers and rededicated the prison camp as a Union burial ground.
The next year in Waterloo, New York, the city observed May 5 as Decoration Day to honor fallen troops.
In 1868, General John A. Logan, commander of the veterans' group the Grand Army of the Republic, officially declared May 30 as Decoration Day.
The idea of celebrating Union soldiers was not popular in the South and it was not until after World War I—when the holiday was changed to honor Americans who had fallen in any war— that many former Confederate states embraced the holiday.
After World War II, more and more Americans had taken to calling the holiday Memorial Day, but the holiday was still officially called Decoration Day until 1967.
The day was marked on May 30 until the Uniform Holidays Bill of 1968 designated Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. The law took effect in 1971. Several veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, object to the date change and want Memorial Day moved back to May 30. They argue that changing the date just to create a three-day weekend has lessened the importance of the day in the public mind.
And they are probably right. Today, it seems most people think of Memorial Day as a break from work, the start of summer, a time to hit the lake or swimming pool — especially this year as the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions may make people want to head off for some delayed recreation.
That's too bad. Our fallen heroes gave everything for us. We should honor their sacrifice. And — again because of the coronavirus — many of the usual ceremonies and tributes have been canceled or postponed.
The National Moment of Remembrance, established by Congress in 2000, asks that all Americans stop whatever they are doing at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day and pause for one minute as a tribute to national unity and to the gallant men and women who died to preserve America's freedom.
If you do nothing else today, take one minute at 3 p.m. to remember those whose sacrifice gave you the freedom you enjoy. It's one way we all can put at least some meaning back into Memorial Day.