(Note: this was inspired by a question from a substitute teacher on Friday, so if you’re reading, Ms. Nalven (and I know you’re not), here you go.)
So today is Memorial Day, which celebrates all men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. However, it has only had that moniker (and purpose) since 1967, when Decoration Day – memorializing the Union soldiers – was changed to Memorial Day.
According to the venerable Wikipedia, the first Decoration Day took place in Charleston, South Carolina, in May of 1865, with the creation of a graveyard for Union soldiers who died in a nearby Confederate prison camp. There had been Decoration Days for Confederate soldiers across the South, but this was the first to honor Union troops. Waterloo, New York, on May 5th, 1866, was the sight of the first official observance – which led eventually to national observance every May 30th, chosen because it was not the anniversary of a battle, merely a day to decorate the tombs and gravestones of Union troops.
The South still had hostility towards the Union Army and “The War of Northern Aggression” (as it’s still known south of the Mason-Dixon line), and didn’t celebrate this day – with the exception being in Columbus, Mississippi, whose Civil War cemetery has both Union and Confederate troops buried.
The name “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882, and came into vogue in the ’50s. By 1967, Memorial Day was federally recognized, and was moved to the final Monday of the month in 1968.
On a related note, Armistice Day’s name was changed to Veterans Day in 1954 (and it wasn’t always November 11th – from 1971-78, it was on the fourth Monday in October, thanks to the Uniform Holiday Act – the same Act making Memorial Day the day it is today and the unofficial start of summer).