It likely began as spontaneous gatherings during the Civil War or soon after the war ended in 1865.
In May 1868, it was officially proclaimed as Decoration Day, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers.
May was picked because flowers would be in bloom all across the country.
Over the years it became known as Memorial Day.
In 1971 a federal law declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be held on the last Monday of May. The purpose is to remember and honor members of the miltary who died in service to the nation.
Among those we honor, according to the U.S. Army Military History Institute, are
4,489 combat deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq) from 2003 to 2012
2,356 combat deaths in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) from 2001 to 2014
58,209 combat deaths in the Vietnam War from 1955- to 1975
36,516 combat deaths in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953
405,399 combat deaths in World War II from 1941 to 1945
116,516 combat deaths in World War I from 1917 to 1918, and
~700,000 combat deaths in the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865.
Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog.