Memorial Day: A Brief Overview

by Daniel Briskin

A few years ago, I found myself sitting with friends before class. We were discussing the upcoming exam schedule and our study plans, when one of us pointed out an approaching three-day weekend. Quickly, we realized that none of us knew the cause of the school holiday; we only knew the ever-important fact that we would get a respite from classes. As none of us knew the holiday, we referenced our calendars and discerned that the event in question was Memorial Day. Answering this one question only led to others: who are we honoring? Soldiers? If so, how is Memorial Day different from Veterans Day—perhaps Veterans Day honors living soldiers and Memorial Day honors dead soldiers? This discussion, from three people born and raised in America, who had collectively celebrated the holiday more than 60 times, showed that our education in and appreciation of our national history was woefully lacking. Therefore, for those who are curious about the origins of Memorial Day (which this year will be observed on Monday, May 27) I have compiled some facts and data about the holiday.

The origins of Memorial Day are actually somewhat contentious, with multiple parties claiming to have initiated the tradition. Suffice it to say, in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, the first large observance of the holiday was held at Arlington National Cemetery following a declaration by the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans. At this time, the holiday was called Declaration Day and was intended as a time to decorate the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers with flowers. Thus, it is no coincidence that the holiday (then celebrated on May 30) falls during the spring bloom of flowers. Other, smaller, local observances are reported to have taken place earlier in other Union and Confederate states.

At the end of the 1800s, many states had adopted May 30 as Memorial Day while the Army and Navy created official protocols for the commemorations. After World War I, the breadth of Memorial Day was expanded to honor soldiers killed in all American conflicts. In 1966 Congress legislated an official story explaining the origins of Memorial Day by declaring Waterloo, NY as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day; a ceremony was held there on May 5, 1866, to honor local veterans who had died in the Civil War. In 1971, Congress enacted legislation to declare Memorial Day a national holiday that was to be celebrated on the last Monday in May, which is how Memorial Day came to have its current form. One contemporary way to observe Memorial Day is by marking the graves of deceased veterans with American flags. Culturally, Memorial Day is the de facto start of summer.

Below are some statistics on selected conflicts fought by America and the deaths suffered therein. Notes: Deaths include battle plus non-battle deaths (i.e. death caused by disease). Dates reflect official US involvement in the given conflicts.


Number Serving


Revolutionary War (1775-1783)


War of 1812 (1812-1815)



Mexican War (1864-1848)



Civil War (1861-1865); Union Forces Only



Spanish-American War (1898)



World War I (1917-1918)



World War II (1941-1946)



Korean War (1950-1953)



Vietnam Conflict (1964-1973)



Persian Gulf War (1990-1991)



Global War on Terror (2001-present)







Memorial Day history:

Deaths by war statistics: (maintained by US Department of Defense).

May 2013