Memorial Day began—soon after the American Civil War ended—as Decoration Day. Decorating with flowers and flags the graves of soldiers who had died in the war was a way for people to say "thank you" for their sacrifice and remember how much our freedom and unity has cost.
So many different towns had set aside a day for people to stop working and visit these graves that it's hard to say exactly which town was the first to do so. Both northern and southern cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. But in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson and Congress declared Waterloo, New York, as the place where Memorial Day began one hundred years before.
Waterloo is the town where Major General John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be an annual holiday. General Logan was the leader of a group of Union veterans. He set the date as May 30 in this declaration issued on May 5, 1866, soon after the Civil War ended.
To honor local veterans of this war, businesses closed and people flew flags at half mast. Ceremonies were held and soldiers' graves, of course, were decorated.
So Memorial Day is not a holiday that began with an act of Congress. It began with people all over the nation paying their respects to those who had given up their lives fighting for what they and their loved ones believed in.
By the end of the 1800s, many states held Memorial Day ceremonies on May 30 every year. The Army and Navy took part as well. After World War I, people began to honor those who fell not only in the Civil War, but in all American wars.
In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day—still also known as Decoration Day—to be an official national holiday, and moved it from May 30 to the last Monday in May.
One way we Americans honor our military people who have died serving our country is through coins. We make everyday coins, special coins, and medals to help us remember these heroes. Let's look at some!
Teachers, click the blackboard for some activity ideas for honoring American veterans in your classroom.
Circulating coins are the coins we use every day. They are made especially to be used when people buy and sell goods and services. Our circulating coins show pictures of past presidents of the United States, and some of them, like George Washington, were war heroes.
Here are some circulating coins that relate directly to military people (you can see the other side of most coins by mousing over them):
The designs on other quarters also relate to the Revolution, though you might not be able to tell just by looking at them. If you don't know the answers to the questions below, follow the links to their pages in "The Coins Are Coming":
Commemorative coins are special coins. They are marked with values like ordinary coins, but their owners don't usually spend them. One reason is that they cost more than their "face" (marked) value. They are made to help people remember a special person, place, or event.
Here are some commemorative coins that honor veterans:
By the way...how is your Marine Corps IQ? Find out with this fun quiz on the information from the commemorative coins page and the July 2005 Coin of the Month! Take the Marine Corps Quiz!
Find out more about commemoratives on the Commemorative Coins page.
Medals are like coins, but they are not money. They are meant to be used as awards to people or groups of people who have done great things.
Check out pictures of recent veterans' medals in the Veterans Medals pages of Inspector Collector's Medal Mania Workshop.
And have you seen the Veterans History Project on the Library of Congress site? Don't miss it!