Is Memorial Day just another patriotic holiday? Every year in the United States, Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday of May. One of the first Memorial Day celebrations dates back to 1866 in New York. However, similar events are found throughout history as we decorate the memorial sites for deceased loved ones. In this unit study, you’ll discover not just the meaning and origin of Memorial Day but the reason why we commemorate the men and women who fell in battle protecting the very foundation the United States was built on.
Timeline: History of Memorial Day
May 5, 1866 – Waterloo, NY, shut its businesses and took to the streets for the first of many continuous, community-wide celebrations.
May 5, 1868 – General John Alexander Logan declared Memorial Day would be celebrated at the end of the month.
May 30, 1868 – General Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
May 26, 1966 – President Lyndon Johnson declares Waterloo, NY as the official birthplace of Memorial Day
June 28, 1968 – Congress declares Memorial Day a national holiday with the passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act
November 28, 1984 – President Ronald Reagan presided over the internment of six bones which were the remains of an unidentified Vietnam War soldier.
Dec 28, 2000 – President Bill Clinton signed the National Moment of Remembrance Act.
The Branches of America’s Armed Forces
To understand why Memorial Day was created and why we celebrate it, it is important to understand the five branches of America’s Armed Forces:
- U.S Army: The Army is the oldest branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. Established as the Continental Army, it was created June 14, 1775 by the Second Continental Congress to have a united group to fight against Great Britain. The Army is the branch of the Armed Forces based on land.
- U.S. Navy: This branch of Armed Forces has over 381,000 active sailors on duty. The Navy was created on October 13, 1775 by the Second Continental Congress as the Continental Navy. It became a permanent part of the Armed Forces as a result of the Naval Act of 1794. The “Old Navy” period led to the use of ironclads during the Civil War and the “New Navy” period – which began in the 1880s – morphed it into the largest worldwide by the 1920s.
- U.S. Marine Corps: The Marine Corps (aka “the Marines”) technically has two birthdays: November 10, 1775 under the name the Continental Marines and July 11, 1798 under its current name. The organization dates back to the Revolutionary War and was originally formed by Captain Samuel Nicholas. Since 1834, it’s served as a component of the U.S. Navy performing amphibious operations.
- U.S. Air Force: The phrase “Air Force One” is the name given to a plane only when the president is on it. Otherwise, it’s known simply as 28000 or 29000 (there are two planes he rides). The Air Force was initially organized as part of the U.S. Army on August 1, 1907 but became a separate entity of the Armed Forces on September 18, 1947. Proudly, we can declare that we have the most technologically advanced air force in the world!
- U.S. Coast Guard: The Coast Guard is the only branch that isn’t part of the Department of Defense. Instead, it’s a part of the Department of Homeland Security – and has been since March 1, 2003 – unless it’s operating as part of the Navy. Created on January 28, 1915, it was designed to be a military service and branch of the Armed Forces. It’s also the oldest continuous water-based service of the Armed Forces.
The History of Memorial Day
The origin of Memorial Day dates back to the Civil War. Following the Civil War – which claimed more lives than any other military-related incident before it – Americans started creating national cemeteries. As a result, the tradition of laying flowers and reciting prayers at the graves of fallen soldiers came to fruition in the late 1860s. While it’s unclear where the tradition of laying flowers and reciting prayers came from, the tradition continues today.
In 1966, Waterloo, NY was declared the birthplace of Memorial Day because of the community’s large annual celebration during which businesses closed and residents decorated grave sites of soldiers who’d fallen. The first Memorial Day took place on May 5, 1966 in Waterloo.
Many attribute General John Logan as the person who created Memorial Day when, on May 5, 1968, he called for a national day of remembrance for later in the month. At that point, May 30th was declared as the day to decorate grave sites with strewn flowers. Known also as Decoration Day at that time, this time of year was specifically chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.
At the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield gave a speech and around 5,000 people helped decorate the grave sites of nearly 20,000 fallen soldiers. By 1890, the Northern states – and one in particular – paid homage to these fallen soldiers by declaring Decoration Day a national holiday. Later coined “Memorial Day,” this holiday originally honored soldiers who’d died during the Civil War but later came to commemorate soldiers who’d fallen in any battle.
How Americans Celebrate Memorial Day
For many years, Memorial Day took place on May 30th. However, in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which established Memorial Day for the last Monday in May so as to create a three-day holiday for federal employees. That same act established Memorial Day as a national holiday. Today, Americans continue to celebrate Memorial Day on the last Monday in May and Veteran’s Day in November which has a similar significance.
Across the nation, Americans celebrate Memorial Day by having annual parades – often with military personnel or members of veteran organizations leading the way. Some of the largest parades take place in Chicago, NYC, and Washington, D.C. Many Americans visit the grave sites and memorials of fallen soldiers. Still, others commemorate the unofficial beginning of summer with a backyard BBQ and fireworks.
Memorial Day for Kids
Loading up on info to do a Memorial Day Unit Study? You won’t want to leave these resources out!
Looking for more resources? Check out what we found on the web!
- Language Arts:
- If you love including read-alouds in your unit studies, you’ll this awesome Memorial Day booklist!
- Use The Red Badge of Courage to springboard Memorial Day language arts activities!
- High school students can enjoy reading Fighting France and then playing the part of a war correspondent in this war-themed language arts activity.
- Graph our history with this online graphing tool used to pack some mathematical punch into your Memorial Day studies!
- Have students measure, create whole-number ratios, and create a flag in this Memorial Day math activity.
- Memorial Day science activities just got sweeter! Load up on science and Oreo’s at the same time!
- History/Social Studies:
- In this Memorial Day game, students use clues to determine who a historical character is. Perfect for remembering fallen soldiers.
- Art or Cross-Curricular:
- Kids can often relate to one another in ways adults may not understand. Your kids may find that they relate to military children in unique ways.
- Do any of your children think they’d like to become a military hero? Homeschooling goes hand in hand with this goal!
- The Memorial Day worksheets, printables, puzzles, and more from Teacher Vision will add to any Memorial Day Unit Study.