Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

The history of Memorial Day, like most histories, depends on who’s telling the story. Histories of all kinds are told many different ways. Accuracy varies, too. When it comes to wartime, history is written by the victors. In most cases, the winners are the good guys who vanquished the bad guys. Diehard Confederates don’t see it that way, though. They think they’re the good guys who got screwed by the Yankees. Yankees say they’re rebels.

In 1782, when Washington was commander-in-chief of the Continental Army of the United States, he gave the Military Badge of Merit to three Revolutionary War soldiers. Most military historians agree it was the first time that a military award had been presented to common soldiers. Prior to this, the custom was to use awards and medals to honor victorious high-ranking officers. 

It was a bit of embroidery on a piece of cloth

The award was designed by Washington himself in the form of a purple heart and intended for enlisted men who exhibited instances of unusual gallantry in battle. The award was given for the next hundred years at the discretion of commanding officers until not long after the end of World War 1. In the years from 1914 to 1918, more than 3 million U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded. This astounding number of casualties triggered the desire to create and award a new honor.

In 1932, the original Badge of Merit was retired in favor of the Purple Heart

This new medal was to be awarded to soldiers who had been wounded in service to their country. The medal was designed by Elizabeth Will, heraldic specialist in the Office of the Quartermaster General. The new design featured the profile and bust of Washington in the center on a purple field surrounded by a gold heart and hanging from a purple ribbon. The Purple Heart was issued on the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birthday. Since its establishment, 2 million have been awarded.

Memorial Day 

This is the long weekend where most offices are closed so people can have picnics, cookouts, go waterskiing on the lake, canoeing on the pond, rafting on the river and surfing in the ocean. The holiday is oriented around recreation and few take even a moment to think about the reasons this holiday was made an important part of the calendar. I didn’t know the name Memorial Day wasn’t used until 1971, did you?

Prior to that, it was observed as Decoration Day

The origin of Decoration Day comes from the generations-old tradition in the American South of visiting relatives’ graves each spring or early summer to remember them. Families would spend an afternoon decorating ancestors’ graves with flowers and remembering them with a memorial observance. Afternoon services typically involved singing, dinner on the grounds and a sermon.

The first official Decoration Day was held in Arlington National Cemetery in 1868

More than 5,000 people came to pay tribute the more than 600,000 combined dead and wounded of the Union and Confederate armies in the U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865.

If you can’t make it to a cemetery, at least pass this story along to someone and ask them to just take two minutes to think about all those soldiers and sailors who served so you can live in the world you do.

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I write stories, website content, blogs, newsletters, marketing materials, white papers, reviews, summaries, How-To articles and more. From a few hundred to a few thousand words, all are fact-based, informative and new ways of looking at things we think we already know. Send me a note at david@letstakeacloserlook.com.


Going somewhere this Memorial Day weekend? You are four times likelier to be in a fatal traffic accident. The National Safety Council estimates nearly 500 people will die on U.S. roads this long weekend. Statistics say the deadliest cities are Houston and Los Angeles.

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