National Military Appreciation Month reaches its peak this Memorial Day weekend, as the nation remembers the individuals who gave their lives while serving their country. There are actually two national holidays, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, which honor the sacrifice of Americans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces, and celebrate our nation’s values of duty, honor and civic responsibility. Interestingly, and likely because these holidays appear to celebrate the same thing, many people confuse Memorial Day and Veterans Day. It is important to understand their difference.
Memorial Day is a day for remembering and honoring military personnel who died in service of their country, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle. While those who died are also remembered, on Veterans Day, this holiday is designated to thank and honor all those who served honorably in the military — in wartime or peacetime. In fact, Veterans Day is largely intended to thank living veterans for their service, to acknowledge their contributions to our national security, and to underscore the fact that all those who served — not only those who died — have sacrificed and done their duty. So you see, the holidays, though similar in the way they commemorate the sacrifices of thousands of American service members, are quite distinctly different and, as such, have different histories.
Memorial Day is the older of the two holidays, having its roots in the Civil War. First known as “Decoration Day,” it was instituted by former Union Army Maj. Gen. John A. Logan to honor those who died in the armed forces. The first official observance of Memorial Day was May 28, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
With General Orders No. 11, Logan designated May 30, 1868, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country,” and to conduct special services as circumstances permitted. He declared, “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 free and undivided republic.” He also asked that the nation renew its pledge to assist the soldiers’ and sailors’ widows and orphans.