How many of us become lawbreakers on Memorial Day without knowing it?

In December 2000, President Bill Clinton signed into law the National Moment of Remembrance Act, a legal requirement stating that at 3 p.m. each Memorial Day, every American citizen is to observe a moment of remembrance and respect for fallen soldiers everywhere.

One has to wonder how many folks actually observe this law — or even know about it.

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, and its initial celebration took place on May 30, 1868, three years after the Civil War ended. At the time, Decoration Day honored only fallen Union soldiers, with flowers, flags, and wreaths being placed on their tombstones.

That first day of remembrance was dedicated by Gen. James Garfield (he wasn’t president yet) at the Arlington National Cemetery, which, until 1864, had been Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s sprawling plantation.

Maj. Gen. John A. Logan had established the May 30 date because he knew that flowers would be in bloom nationwide at that time.

Calling the day a national holiday is actually somewhat of a misnomer. Congress over the years has created 10 national holidays — including Memorial Day — but they apply only to federal employees and the District of Columbia.

Federal Memorial Day, established in 1888, allowed Civil War veterans from both sides who worked for the U.S. government to honor their deceased comrades without being docked a day’s pay.

Nine Southern states didn’t adopt May 30 as Memorial Day until after World War I, and to this day each has officially established a separate date to honor their Confederate dead.

Although it wasn’t official until 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, thus setting Memorial Day as the last Monday in May and ensuring a three-day weekend for federal employees.

If you display Old Glory on Memorial Day, be aware that all flags should be flown at half-mast until noon, at which time they are to be raised to the top of the staff and lowered at day’s end.

Today people observe Memorial Day in many different ways.

While some folks may visit cemeteries and memorials, watch parades or enjoy barbecues, picnics, and pool parties, others may reflect quietly on the gravitas of the day or perhaps recall the words of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose classic 1882 poem “Decoration Day” honored the military fallen and ended with these poignant words:


Your silent tents of green

We deck with fragrant flowers

Yours has the suffering been

The memory shall be ours


Although Randal C. Hill’s heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at

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