The History of Memorial Day: Its Link to America’s Heritage

History Hub
6 May 2023
by Ancestry® Team

Did someone in your family give their life fighting for their country? Memorial Day helps Americans celebrate their immediate family members and distant relatives who have lost their lives serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Learn the truth about Memorial Day, its origins, and understand when it is observed. 

A Look Back at the History of Memorial Day

It may surprise some Americans to know that Memorial Day history in the United States predates World War I. 

The original name for what is now known as Memorial Day was actually Decoration Day, and it was first celebrated on May 30, 1868, 3 to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers. 

The first national commemoration was organized by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and was when former Union Gen. and sitting Ohio Congressman James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried there.

New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day as a legal holiday in 1873. Other states followed suit, and by the end of the century, it was declared a legal holiday in multiple states across the country. 

When World War I ended in 1918, Memorial Day became more widely celebrated as a holiday across the United States as a way to honor the 116,708 American soldiers who died during the Great War.

memorial day parade
Memorial Day Parade – Washington DC – 1942 – Source: Library of Congress

Why Memorial Day Is Observed in the United States

In the United States, Memorial Day is a day of remembrance and mourning of those who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. 

The day, while sometimes viewed as a celebration of life, is historically intended to honor those who sacrificed their lives for their country. 

From 1868 to 1970, the United States observed Memorial Day on May 30 each year. In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act came into effect and changed Memorial Day’s observance to the last Monday in May. 

The Act affected numerous other holidays, including Washington’s Birthday and Columbus Day, and set them on Mondays so federal employees could enjoy a three-day weekend. 

Military Heritage and Memorial Day in America 

While many people simply use Memorial Day as an excuse for a long weekend getaway in the United States, acknowledging the meaning behind the day requires thoughtful attention to how the holiday is spent. 

For families with a history of military service, this is a day spent remembering lives lost and teaching younger generations about ancestors who served in the U.S. armed forces.

For families wondering how to preserve and share their military heritage with their kids or grandchildren, Memorial Day activities can include flying an American flag and visiting a war memorial. 

Parents can help kids understand the meaning behind the holiday by going back to its origins as Decoration Day. Bring flowers and decorate the grave of a loved one who gave their life in service. Then, tell stories about that person to keep their memory and name alive within the family. 

Memorial Day can also be a great time for them to share their account of what life was like during the world war  with younger generations. This is a primary resource for keeping the history and personal stories of these times on record. 

memorial day tribute
President and Mrs. Hoover lead nation in observing Memorial Day-1929 -Source: Library of Congress

Trace Your Military Heritage 

Military records are more easily traced when you do some research with your family. Interview living family members and take notes of names, dates, and military branches that your relatives served in. Also, gather any newspaper clippings, obituaries, or photographs your family has access to and store them safely for generations to come to learn from. 

If you are wondering about your family’s military history this Memorial Day, sign up for a free trial with Ancestry® and use our database to search our extensive collections of military records from conflicts back to the Revolutionary War.. Looking at past military records to see if family members on your family tree served can help you understand your past and celebrate your family members’ bravery. 

Discover your family history with a free trial of Ancestry today!