Memorial Day has a long history in the United States, longer even than many people know. In 2001, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, a book written by Pulitzer Prize winner David Blight, brought to light the long ignored influence the Black community had on the origins of this holiday and a 2020 article by Time continued to highlight this section of history. This article and Blight’s book place the beginnings of Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina in May of 1865. During the Civil War, over 250 Union prisoners died in captivity during the last year of the war, and all of them were buried in unmarked graves. After the conflict, Black residents of Charleston decided to give these war heroes a proper burial.
According to the Time article’s description, “approximately 10 days leading up to the event, roughly two dozen African American Charlestonians reorganized the graves into rows and built a 10-foot-tall white fence around them. An archway overhead spelled out “Martyrs of the Race Course” in black letters.” This grave and the massive ceremony and celebration that followed its completion were the first organized remembrance of those who fought and died for America. In his book, Blight said, “The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration.”
This was originally known as Decoration Day and originated following the American Civil War as a way to memorialize the soldiers who fell in battle. According to history.com “in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees; the change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday” So, while the name of the holiday changed and so did its status as a nationally recognized holiday, the tradition of honoring fallen soldiers has remained the same. 1
Today, even if you can’t participate in a Memorial Day celebration in your community, FSU Libraries have put together a digital tour of several national monuments.
If you encounter an error with the embedded tour above, or if it fails to load, you may view the VR series here.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier came as a way to memorialize soldiers whose remains weren’t able to be properly identified after World War I.
“In December 1920, New York Congressman and World War I veteran Hamilton Fish Jr. proposed legislation that provided for the interment of one unknown American soldier at a special tomb to be built in Arlington National Cemetery.”
This tradition of memorializing one unknown soldier that fell in war as a memorial for all the other unknown soldiers was upheld for World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
But the tomb dedicated to the Unknown Soldier for the Vietnam War is currently vacant. There were remains there for almost 14 years but eventually it was discovered that the remains belonged to “Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, a pilot who had been shot down in 1972.” His remains were the only ones that were recovered and unidentified at the time which is the reason for the tomb’s vacancy. But, “On September 17, 1999 — National POW/MIA Recognition Day — it was rededicated to honor all missing U.S. service members from the Vietnam War.” 2
National World War II Memorial
“The National World War II Memorial honors the 16 million people who served as part of the American armed forces during World War II, including more than 400,000 who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country.” 3
“President Clinton signed Public Law 103-32 on May 25, 1993, authorizing the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) to establish a World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., or its environs. It is the first national memorial dedicated to all who served during World War II and acknowledging the commitment and achievement of the entire nation.” 4
The design of the memorial was created by Friedrich St.Florian and it was selected from a national contest that included over 400 entries and his design won him the spot as the Design Architect. 5
JFK Gravesite at Arlington
Former President John F. Kennedy’s first visit to the Arlington National Cemetery was on Veterans Day on November 11, 1961 where he placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and gave a speech to 5,000 people at the Memorial Amphitheatre.
Surprisingly enough, JFK is actually one of only two presidents buried at Arlington and it was a common belief that he would be buried in Massachusetts as that was his native state and it was extremely rare for the president to be buried outside their native state. But, “First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy wanted her husband’s gravesite to be accessible to the American public” and consulted with both JFK’s brother and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara about the best location. It was settled that Arlington would be the best fit. 6
Vietnam Women’s Memorial
“For the first time in America’s history, a memorial that honors women’s patriotic service was dedicated in the nation’s capital, placed beside their brother soldiers on the hallowed grounds of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. It was the first tangible symbol of honor for American women. The multi-figure bronze monument is designed by New Mexico sculptor, Glenna Goodacre. It is a sculpture in the round portraying three Vietnam-era women, one of whom is caring for a wounded male soldier, stands 6’8″ tall and weighs one ton.”
According to vietnamwomensmemorial.org, A three-day Celebration of Patriotism and Courage, November 10-12, 1993, in Washington, D.C. highlighted the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial on November 11, 1993 near the Wall of names and the statue of the three serviceman at the site of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Thousands of Vietnam veterans, their families and friends joined the nation in honoring these brave and compassionate women.” 7
Want to visit a memorial in person? Here are some you can find in Florida: