Memorial Day, which is always observed on the last Monday of May, honors men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Though originally created to honor those lost while fighting in the Civil War, it has now evolved to commemorate American military personnel who have died in all wars.
The Civil War claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history, requiring the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries. By the late 1860s, Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.
In May 1862, Gen. John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance, known then as “Decoration Day.”
On the first Decoration Day, Gen. James Garfield (and future president) made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. Many Northern states carried on the tradition of remembrance in following years, but many Southern states continued to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I.
Georgia native Moina Michael conceived the idea of using poppies as a symbol of remembrance for those who served their country. In 1915, inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields,” Moina Michael replied with her own poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith.” Its opening lines:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
The University of Georgia professor later taught a class of disabled servicemen and pursued the idea of selling silk poppies to raise funds for disabled veterans. Known as the “Poppy Lady” for her humanitarian efforts, Michael received numerous awards during her lifetime. In 1948, four years after her death, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring her life’s achievement.
On Memorial Day, the U.S. flag is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon. It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon, their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.