After the Civil War ended in 1865 and claimed more lives than any other U.S. conflict, the American public felt a need to honor the dead and pay respects to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in war.

Already, individual towns and cities had been holding vigils and remembrances for lost family members that fought in the war. According to, some formerly enslaved South Carolinians held one of the first “Memorial Day” celebrations barely a month after the Confederacy surrendered to Union forces in 1865.

A more a concerted effort was led by Gen. John A. Logan, the leader of an organization for northern Civil War veterans, to establish a nationwide day of respect for the fallen. Originally dubbed “Decoration Day,” it was an opportunity to adorn the graves of those who were buried in disparate churchyards and towns across the young country. May 30 was the original chosen date because that was when most flowers would be in bloom for the purpose of decorating graves.

It wasn’t until 1971, however, that Memorial Day became an official federal holiday, and legislation ensured it would be celebrated on the last Monday of May to give workers a long weekend.

Today, Memorial Day honors honors all the men and women who sacrificed their lives in military service for their country. Since Nov. 11, 2001, more than 7,000 U.S. service members and 8,000 contractors have died in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and associated battles, according to Brown University’s Watson Institute.

Memorial Day is one of two major federal holidays that honor the contributions of service members — the other being Veterans Day in November.

Statistic: Number of military fatalities in all major wars involving the United States from 1775 to 2024 | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

In Washington, D.C., Memorial Day will be observed with an annual parade at 2 p.m. beginning on Constitution Avenue. At Arlington National Cemetery, a wreath laying ceremony will be observed on the 26th at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, alongside opportunities to lay flowers at the base of other headstones around the cemetery, where some 400,000 veterans and their family members are buried.

There are dozens of national cemeteries around the country at which remembrance ceremonies will also be taking place. To find one near you, check out this schedule of events maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

This year, Memorial Day is on Monday, May 27. On this day, and the other 11 federal holidays recognized by the government, all non-essential government employees are off work, and most government offices are closed.

The next federal holiday will be Juneteenth, celebrated on Wednesday, June 19. This is one of the newer federal holidays that was presidentially designated in 2021 — and the first new holiday approved since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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