Memorial Day is one of those holidays that we all celebrate, but we're not quite sure why. Although it has become the unofficial start of summer, it began as a holiday with Confederate ties.
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day during post-Civil War Reconstruction in the South. It began as a day Confederate women decorated the graves of Civil War veterans. Or, the veterans of the War Between the States as the Civil War will forever be called south of Washington D.C.
The first Decoration Day was proclaimed on May 5th, 1868, to be observed on May 30th, by General John Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.
It was not until the end of World War I that the federal government began to commemorate all those who died in war. However, the South either did not observe this Memorial Day or chose a different day to do so.
In South Carolina, May 10th is still observed as Confederate Memorial Day. In some southern states, such as Georgia, Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday. It gives people a chance to honor and remember the Confederate soldiers who died or were wounded during the Civil War.
Arlington, the home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was seized by Union forces during the Civil War and taken over by the federal government when Mary Lee failed to show up and personally pay the taxes on Arlington because she had fallen ill. If the taxes were not paid in person, commissioners were authorized to sell the land. This was a way that the federal government could punish those who broke from the United States, like Lee. The only bidder on the land was the federal government.
Now the property of the federal government, Union forces petitioned Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to declare that the Lee property be appropriated as a National Military Cemetery for Union Soldiers as a means to make Arlington uninhabitable for the Lees. Stanton readily complied.
At Arlington National Cemetery, all graves are decorated by soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division--the oldest active duty regiment in the army, having been first organized as the First American Regiment in 1784. The regiment's mission is to conduct memorial affairs to honor fallen comrades and ceremonies and special events. The Old Guard are the sentinels of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, maintaining a twenty-four hour watch over one of the nation's most sacred sites; the Continental Color Guard, which presents the nation's colors at special events across the Capitol Region; the Presidential Salute Battery, which renders honors to senior dignitaries at arrival and wreath ceremonies, reviews, and full honors funerals.
In 1971, Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday in May as part of a consolidation of holidays on Mondays to create 3-day weekends.