By John Degree | Classical Historian
Memorial Day is a day set aside by the United States Congress to remember and honor all those who have fallen in battle defending America. In 1967, in the middle of the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson and Congress established this federal holiday to take place on May 30th. In 1968 Congress decided to move the holiday to the nearest Monday closest to the 30th, to give federal workers a three-day weekend. Although many Americans celebrate this day by having bar-b-cues and kicking off the summer, its true meaning can be found in a speech by President Ronald Reagan.
On the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, June 6th, 1984, President Ronald Reagan commemorated the U.S. Army Ranger’s charge up Pointe du Hoc, a 100 foot cliff guarded by soldiers of the German army.
“Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet, you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love.
The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge – and pray God we have not lost it – that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty.”
Although Memorial Day was established in 1967, its origins can be traced to right after the Civil War. More Americans died in the American Civil War than in all other American wars. Over 625,000 American soldiers died, including about 30% of all Southern white males and 10 percent of Northern males ages 20-45. Almost every American knew someone who died. Because every American knew someone who died in the war, citizens gathered together to remember the brave who had fallen fighting for what they thought was just.
Immediately after the war, one of the first known observances of remembering the dead was called Decoration Day, because mourners would decorate the graves with flowers. Freed slaves, along with missionaries and others, organized a celebration in May in 1865. 257 Union prisoners had died during the war in a Charleston war prison and had been buried there. Some in the North have called this the “First Decoration Day.” On this day, more than 10,000 people, including 3,000 newly freed children, participated.
Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the American Army, the U.S. government, and individual states celebrated Decoration Day, usually on May 30th, a date chosen because no great battle fell on this day. The United States government established national cemeteries for the Union dead. This unofficial tradition of a Memorial Day lasted until 1967, when it became one of America’s federal holidays.
Below are listed all American military deaths that occurred because of the various wars of the United States of America.
Conflict Deaths Span
American Revolution 25,000 1775-1783
Northwest Indian War 1,056 1785-1795
Quasi-War 514 1798-1800
War of 1812 20,000 1812-1815
1st Seminole War 36 1817-1818
Black Hawk War 305 1832
2nd Seminole War 1,535 1835-1842
Mexican-American War 13,283 1846-1848
3rd Seminole War 26 1855-1858
Civil War 625,000 1861-1865
Indian Wars 919 1865-1898
Great Sioux War 314 1875-1877
Spanish-America War 2,446 1898
Philippine-American War 4,196 1898-1913
Boxer Rebellion 131 1900-1901
Mexican Revolution 35 1914-1919
Haiti Occupation 148 1915-1934
World War 1 116,516 1917-1918
North Russia Campaign 424 1918-1920
American Exped. Force Siberia 328 1918-1920
Nicaragua Occupation 48 1927-1933
World War 2 405,399 1941-1945
Korean War 36,516 1950-1953
Vietnam War 58,209 1955-1975
El Salvador Civil War 37 1980-1992
Beirut 266 1982-1984
Grenada 19 1983
Panama 40 1989
Persian Gulf War 258 1990-1991
Operation Provide Comfort 19 1991-1996
Somalia Intervention 43 1992-1995
Bosnia 12 1995-2004
NATO Air Campaign Yugoslavia 20 1999
The War on Terror
a. Afghanistan (ongoing) 2,145 2001-
b. Iraq 4,486 2003-2011