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A Brief History of Memorial Day

Begun as a way to honor America's Civil War dead, the holiday has only been recognized federally since 1971.

The origins of Memorial Day are shrouded in incomplete historical records and a North-South rift as old as the Civil War.

According to USMemorialDay.org, the practice of decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers was begun throughout the American South as a way of honoring the dead (as well as mourning the rebellion).

The practice had lodged in the popular consciousness so much so thereafter that by 1868, United States General John Logan proclaimed a Memorial Day be held at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.

Logan's remarks - with no small degree of flourish - formalized the practice of commemorating grave sites as a way of "preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors and Marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.

"What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes?" he wrote.

"Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance."

Logan's orders conclude with these remarks, popularly echoed through the years as a justification for maintaining the grave sites of soldiers.

"Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic," he said.

Perhaps that part about crushing tyrannous rebellion rankled Southerners, who didn't adopt the practice as Memorial Day until after World War I, when the country collectively agreed to commemorate the dead of both conflicts on the same holiday.

Memorial Day officially became a federal holiday by Congressional order in 1971, but as the website points out, observances could be spotty, short of baseball game flyovers and parades.

At the sparest, the White House requested in 2000 Americans stop at 3 p.m. for a voluntary moment of reflection, or to listen to Taps and consider the sacrifices of American service personnel and their families.

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