Why Memorial Day?
Memorial Day began soon after the American Civil War ended as Decoration Day. Decorating graves with flowers and flags was a way for people to say “thank you” for the sacrifice of service members who had died in war and remember how much our freedom and unity has cost.
How Memorial Day Started
Waterloo, New York 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, one year 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 graves were decorated.
Unlike other holidays, 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 to be an official national holiday, and moved it from May 30 to the last Monday in May.
Heroes and Coins
One way the United States Mint honors military people who have died serving our country is through coins and medals.
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 service:
- 1976 Bicentennial Quarter: Not only does George Washington’s likeness show on the front, but a Revolutionary War soldier plays a drum on the back.
- New Jersey Quarter: New Jersey’s design is based on a famous painting of General George Washington crossing the Delaware into New Jersey to launch a surprise attack during the Revolutionary War.
- Massachusetts Quarter: One of the major elements in this design is the figure of a Minuteman. Minutemen were colonists who pledged to be ready on a minute’s notice in case the British attacked.
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.
- Delaware: Where was Caesar Rodney going?
- Connecticut: What part did the Charter Oak play in Connecticut’s independence?
- South Carolina: Why is South Carolina called the Palmetto State?
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:
- 2002 West Point Bicentennial Commemorative Coin: This coin celebrates the 1802 founding of the military academy at West Point, New York.
- 2005 United States Marine Corps 230th Anniversary Silver Dollar: This coin commemorates the 230th anniversary of the Marine Corps.
- 2010 American Veterans Disabled for Life Silver Dollar: This coin is one way of remembering and thanking those who have suffered injuries in the line of duty.
- 2011 United States Army Commemorative Coins: These coins recognize and celebrate the founding of the United States Army at the time of the Revolutionary War in 1775.
- 2011 Medal of Honor Commemorative Coins: These coins celebrate the creation of the Medal of Honor.
- 2012 Infantry Soldier Silver Dollar: This coin honors the first infantry in America, founded on June 14, 1775. The Infantry played and continues to play the major role in gaining and protecting freedom for us and our allies.
- 2013 Five-Star Generals Commemorative Coins: These coins honor five generals who attended or taught at the Command and General Staff College (CGSC) of the United States Army.
- 2018 WWI Centennial Silver Dollar: This coin commemorates the centennial of America’s involvement in World War I.
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 who have done great things.
Check out pictures of veterans medals on the Veterans Medals page.
Teach your students about veterans, POWs, and the concept of peace with the following lesson plans:
What is Peace? (Grades 2–3)
Starting with the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial quarter, students will define peace and determine how they can contribute to peace in their families, schools and communities. Students will convey how they imagine a peaceful world.
Serving Our Nation (Grades 3–8)
Students will read about and research the lives of specific war veterans who have been honored on coins or medals to compare their common characteristics and differences.
Veterans and POWs (Grades 6–8)
Students will use online resources (including the U.S. Mint’s H.I.P. Pocket Change™ web site) to investigate the role veterans and POWs played in our nation’s history. This activity is related directly to the U.S. POW Commemorative Coin.
Peace in Word and Deed (Grades 9–12)
Starting with the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial quarter, students will explore how events lead to establishing memorials and demonstrate their understanding by creating a persuasive argument.