Memorial Day History

Memorial Day honors American soldiers who died serving the U.S. in any war. Originally, Memorial Day honored those who died during the American Civil War (1861–1865). It wasn't until 1971 that Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday, which is always celebrated the last Monday in May. 

Memorializing those who fell in battle is an ancient practice, dating back thousands of years to the ancient Romans and Greeks who held feast days and decorated graves in honor of those who died. Even before the Civil War ended, women's groups in the South decorated the graves of Confederate dead. But it wasn't until America joined WWI (in 1917) that the tradition of commemorating those who died was expanded to those who were killed in all wars, especially until 1971, when Memorial Day became a federal holiday during the Vietnam War.

Want to learn more? Check out a book about Memorial Day, opens a new window, especially Section 60 Arlington National Cemetery: Where War Comes Home, opens a new window and Thank You for Your Service, opens a new window.

WAR/CONFLICT CASUALTIES (Casualty Status U.S. Dept of Defense, opens a new window)
Civil War Approximately 620,000
WWI 116,516
WWII 405,399
Korean War 36,574
Vietnam War 58,220
Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm 383
Operation Iraqi Freedom 4,411
Operation New Dawn 74
Operation Enduring Freedom 2,353
Operation Freedom's Sentinel 92 (as of May 2020)
Operation Inherent Resolve 97 (as of May 2020)
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