While many of the COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, not all of the large, traditional gatherings will be taking place this Memorial Day weekend. This more subdued official start to summer is a good time to reflect, and remember the people who sacrificed their lives for their country. Here are some facts to give the holiday some perspective.
1. Memorial Day Began as a Response to the Civil War.
The holiday was a response to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War in which a total of some 620,000 soldiers died. The loss of life and its effect on communities led to several spontaneous commemorations beginning in 1864 when a group of Pennsylvania women put flowers on the graves of their fallen soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg.
2. Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day.
The holiday was long known as Decoration Day for the practice of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags. The name "Memorial Day" goes back to 1882, and it wasn't until 1967 that federal law declared "Memorial Day" the official name.
3. CBS helped identify one of the Unknown Soldiers.
"Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God."
That is the inscription on the Tomb of the Unknowns, established at Arlington National Cemetery to inter the remains of the first Unknown Solider, a World War I fighter, on November 11, 1921. Unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War were subsequently interred in the tomb on Memorial Day 1958, and in 1984, the remains of an unidentified Vietnam War solider were buried there.
Fourteen years later, spurred by a CBS News investigation, the Department of Defense removed those remains for DNA testing. The once-unknown fighter was identified as Air Force pilot Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie, whose jet crashed in South Vietnam in 1972. Lieutenant Blassie was reburied near his hometown of St. Louis, and his crypt at Arlington remains permanently empty.
4. A New Tradition
There's no question that Memorial Day is a solemn event. In 2000, Congress established a National Moment of Remembrance, which asks Americans to pause for one minute at 3 p.m. in an act of national unity. The time was chosen because 3 p.m. "is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday."