NEW YORK — Though many people are quick to refer to Memorial Day as the unofficial beginning of summer, the day is much more than that.
Initially known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day is a day to remember those military members who died in service of the country.
The origins of Memorial Day remain somewhat of a topic of debate. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. However, the roots of Memorial Day likely run much deeper, as researchers at Duke University note that during the Civil War, organized women’s groups in the south had begun to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers.
Memorial Day as we know it today can likely be traced to Charleston, S.C., where teachers, missionaries and some members of the press gathered on May 1, 1865, to honor fallen soldiers.
During the Civil War, captured Union soldiers were held at the Charleston Race Course and hundreds died during captivity. Upon their deaths, soldiers were buried in unmarked graves.
When the Civil War ended, the May Day gathering was organized as a memorial to all the men who had died during captivity.
The burial ground was landscaped, and those freed as a result of the Civil War played an integral role in the event at the Charleston Race Course.
While the event in Charleston might have been the first Memorial Day-type celebration in the southern United States, Gen. John A. Logan is often cited as inspiring similar events in the north.
As commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ organization for men who served in the Civil War, Gen. Logan issued a proclamation just five days after the Charleston event that called for Decoration Day to be observed annually across the country.
Logan preferred the event not be held on the anniversary of any particular battle, and thus the day was observed for the first time on May 30.
Celebrating the day in May also was significant to event organizers because May is a month when flowers are in bloom, making it easier for observers of the holiday to place flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers. Many still call Memorial Day, Decoration Day, because of the commemorative decorating of the graves.
In 1868, events were held at more than 180 cemeteries in 27 states, and those figures nearly doubled in 1869. By 1890, every northern state officially recognized Decoration Day as a state holiday. But southern states honored their dead on a different day until after World War I, when the holiday was changed to recognize Americans who died in any war and not just the Civil War.
Nearly every state now celebrates Memorial Day, a name for the holiday first used in 1882, on the last Monday in May.
Honoring active military members and veterans does not have to be an elaborate undertaking. Service members and their families often cherish even the simplest of gestures, and the following are a handful of ways grateful men and women can show their appreciation to active and retired members of the military.
• Help a neighbor who’s on active duty. Active duty service members can be away from their families for long periods of time, and their absence can make things difficult for their families.
Spouses of deployed service members are typically left to manage a household on their own for months at a time.
Neighbors can show their appreciation by helping with some chores around the house. Offer to mow a neighbor’s lawn or drive a neighbor’s kids to school.
Such gestures might seem small, but they can go a long way toward alleviating some of the stress that spouses of deployed service members deal with on a daily basis.
• Support the Wounded Warrior Project. Many service members sustain physical injuries while deployed. The Wounded Warrior Project works to raise awareness and enlist the public’s help to address the needs of injured service members.
Men and women who want to show their appreciation to injured service members can work with the Wounded Warrior Project by volunteering at project-sponsored events or hosting fundraising events such as golf tournaments or community picnics.
More information about working with the Wounded Warrior Project is available at www.woundedwarriorproject.org.
• Write a letter of appreciation. One of the simplest ways to show your support for service members is to write them a letter expressing that appreciation.
If a friends, relatives or neighbors are active service members or veterans, sit down and write a letter telling them how much you appreciate their sacrifice in service of their country, and encourage youngsters to do the same.
If you don’t know any members of the military, you can work with A Million Thanks (www.amillionthanks.org), a year-round campaign that encourages Americans to write letters or emails or send cards or prayers to U.S. military personnel, past and present to thank them for their sacrifices, dedication and service.
• Exercise your right to vote. One of the best ways to honor servicemen and women is to avoid taking the rights they so defend for granted. Members of the military routinely put their lives on the line so Americans can enjoy freedoms that many people across the globe cannot. Voting is one such freedom, so Americans should make it a point to vote every Election Day and teach their children about the responsibility each American has to vote and take an interest in their government.
Speak with active and veteran members of the military about their thoughts on proposed legislation and their opinions on how to improve that legislation, taking those opinions into consideration before casting your vote.