Memorial Day’s Meaning - The History

Another Memorial Day is upon us. For all of us, Memorial Day has meaning. For altogether too many Americans, it is a three-day weekend for the beach, picnics, and an early start to summer. At the same time, very few remember what the day was originally set aside for. For a few, it is a day to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, gave their lives to ensure that this country might remain free. But for most, many don’t know or understand the history of Memorial Day and the true meaning. Most don’t realize Memorial Day is reserved for those who can’t return a smile, or a salute, not to mention the families and friends who have been left behind.

Memorial Day was first widely observed in May 1868. The first celebration commemorated the sacrifices of the Civil War and a nationwide proclamation was made by General John A Logan, an American soldier and veteran and  General in the Union Army in Decatur, Illinois. In Washington, DC, following the proclamation, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 veterans and citizens decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there, establishing it as a day for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead — it became known as Decoration Day.

In 1873, New York was the first state to designate it as both Memorial Day and a holiday — and the term Memorial Day gradually became the official designation by the late 1800’s. In the years since World War 1, the day has become a celebration honoring those who died in all America’s wars and conflicts. It is a day to solely honor the dead. They died in the field of combat and instead returned home under solemn circumstances, inside flag-draped coffins.

Not to be confused with Veteran’s Day and Armed Forces Day, by contrast, both honor those among us who have served, or are still serving in our Armed Forces. On those days — and of course not just those days — we reach out to vets and current military members and thank them for wearing the uniform and facing grave danger.

Over the decades following, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date General Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day. But in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May and in 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday. Memorial Day Meaning – Reagan’s Speech.

President Ronald Reagan is credited with reviving the practice of honoring Memorial Day and its meaning. One of his famous speeches was given at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in 1986.

“Today is the day we put aside to remember our 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 of her children — it who rest in this cemetery and others. It’s a day to be with the family and remember.”

Members of our armed forces continue to fight and die to protect their fellow comrades in arms, and to fight for our right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness and to ensure the freedoms accorded by the U.S. Constitution.

With those words, I believe it is important to put into context and perspective the real meaning to help those that may not understand the meaning to realize was at stake for each and every American who has given the ultimate sacrifice … and to continue to honor the loss of over 1,283,000 fallen American Patriots…of course there will be more, as unfortunate as that is.

It is also import to keep in mind however, that there have been hundreds of instances since our founding in which the United States has used its Armed Forces abroad in situations of military conflict or potential conflict or for other than normal peacetime purposes which cause this figure to vary.

Below is just a listed of the major conflicts and wars where American losses were significant:

  • The Revolutionary War — 4,400~
  • The War of 1812 — 15,000~
  • Civil War (Union/Confederate) — 620,000~
  • WW I — 116,515~
  • WW II — 420,000 ~
  • Korean War — 36,516
  • Vietnam War — 58,209
  • Iraq War — 4,488
  • Afghanistan War — 2,326

And as noted, let us not forget so many American smaller wars, conflicts, contingencies, peace-keeping, peace-enforcement, stability operations, multi-national special operations and counter-terror missions from the Barbary Wars, the Spanish American War, The Bay of Pigs, Lebanon, Grenada, Just Cause, the Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, Syria, Libya,  and so many more.

This weekend, as we all enjoy time with family and friends, take a few minutes to remember the sacrifices that make it possible for us to enjoy our freedoms. Bring your children to a Memorial Day parade. Visit a war memorial or a military cemetery. Read the names on the plaque and think of the families that were forever changed by the loss of that individual. It’s important that we remember why we have a Memorial Day holiday and honor those who fought for our freedom and who, by their sacrifice, have earned our eternal gratitude.

Jim Waurishuk is a retired USAF Colonel, serving nearly 30-years as a career senior intelligence and political-military affairs officer and special mission intelligence officer with expertise in strategic intelligence, international strategic studies and policy, and asymmetric warfare. He served combat and combat-support tours in Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as on numerous special operations and special mission intelligence contingencies in Central America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. He served as a special mission intelligence officer assigned to multiple Joint Special Operations units, and with the CIA’s Asymmetric Warfare Task Force, as well as in international and foreign advisory positions. He served as Deputy Director for Intelligence for U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) during the peak years of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Global War on Terrorism. He is a former White House National Security Council staffer and a former Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C. He served as a senior advisor to the Commander U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and is Vice President of the Special Ops-OPSEC — which provides strategic and operational security analysis and assessments to governmental and private entities, as well as media organizations on national security issues, policy, and processes. He currently provides advisory and consulting services on national security, international strategic policy, and strategy assessments for the U.S. and foreign private sector and governments entities, media groups and outlets, and to political groups, forums, and political candidates. He is an author and writer providing regular commentary and opinion to national and local TV, radio networks, and for both print and online publications, as well as speaking engagements to business, political, civic and private groups on national security matters – focusing on international strategic policy and engagement, and strategic intelligence, and subject matter expertise on special mission intelligence and operations, counter-terrorism, and asymmetric warfare and conflict.