By 1865 the practice of decorating soldiers' graves had become widespread in the North. General John Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic--the society of Union Army veterans--called for all GAR posts to celebrate a "Decoration Day" on May 30, 1868. There were events in 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868, and 336 in 1869. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday; Michigan made "Decoration Day" an official state holiday in 1871 and by 1890 every northern state followed suit. The ceremonies were sponsored by the Women's Relief Corps, with 100,000 members.
The Civil War so dominated the day that after World War I, the new veterans pushed for their own "Armistice Day", now "Veterans Day" in November.
The preferred name gradually changed to "Memorial Day"; in 1971 the date was moved by Congress to the last Monday in May in order to ensure a three-day weekend. It marks the start of summer, just as Labor Day marks the end.
The alternative name of "Memorial Day" was first used in 1882. It did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved three holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The holidays included Washington's Birthday, now celebrated as Presidents' Day; Veterans Day and Memorial Day. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971.
[I took the above pictures in April at Arlington National Cemetery. My wife attended family member Kermit's funeral in 1989. The pictures below were taken in May at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.]
It's also important to recognize that individual soldiers have gone to war for a variety of reasons that have been masked by the freedom and honor slogans that are used to justify all wars. It's also true that the soldiers against whom our soldiers fought also believed they were fighting for honorable reasons. There are situations where one could possibly justify war. When another country attacks your country seems to be a good justification. But I also believe that if businesses did not profit from selling weapons, uniforms, transportation, food, etc. to support war, we'd have a lot fewer wars.
And we should remember we don't have equivalent holidays to recognize carpenters, teachers, janitors, social workers, engineers, doctors, waiters, architects, bus drivers, musicians, and others who make our life richer and more comfortable. Like soldiers, every profession includes heroes and scoundrels. Soldiers, however, are the one profession who are trained specifically to destroy and kill. The cost of that activity both on the victims and the perpetrators is horrendous. When we remember dead soldiers, we should also be reminded of the horrors of war, and that war should be the very last step we take to protect our freedoms when all other options have been exhausted.