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