The Origin Of Memorial Day and How Many Died In War

When was the first Memorial Day, and what’s it about? Some may confuse the purpose of Memorial Day with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday of May, honoring those who died while serving in the U.S. military. Whereas Veterans Day recognizes all who have served in the Armed Forces.

When did Memorial Day begin?

Memorial Day was a response to the Civil War, in which a total of ~ 650,000 soldiers died between both sides. The loss of life and its effect on communities throughout the country led to several spontaneous commemorations of the dead.

Soon afterwards, May 30, 1868 was set aside “for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” ~ Major General John Logan, General Order #11

In 1873, New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day as a legal holiday. By the late 1800s, many more cities and communities observed Memorial Day, and several states had declared it a legal holiday.

After World War I, it became an occasion for honoring those who died in all of America’s wars and was then more widely established as a national holiday throughout the United States.

In 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act and established that Memorial Day was to be commemorated on the last Monday of May.

Decoration Day

The holiday was long known as Decoration Day for the practice of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags. It wasn’t until 1967 that federal law declared “Memorial Day” the official name.

Memorial Day

“Memorial Day, as Decoration Day gradually came to be known, originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. But during World War I the United States found itself in another major conflict, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars, including World War II, The Vietnam War, The Korean War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” ~

How Many U.S. Military Died In Wars?

American war deaths have varied dramatically, depending on the war they were volunteering (or being drafted) to fight. Some fell to the enemy, many more fell to disease. Since the Revolutionary War ended, 646,596 American troops have died in battle and more than 539,000 died from other, non-combat related causes.

From, here are the numbers of casualties of U.S. military for the following wars. For a complete list of casualties of every American war, here’s their link.

American Revolutionary War (1775 – 1783)

American Civil War (1861 – 1865)

World War I (1917 – 1918)

World War II (1940 – 1945)

Korean War (1950 – 1953)

Vietnam War (1964 – 1975)

Gulf War (1990 – 1991)

Iraq and Afghanistan (as of Sept. 2011)


  1. Thanks for the reminder Ken. Growing up, Memorial Day was a day of work for me and many of my brothers and cousins. We grabbed gardening tools and trash bags and went to our town cemetery and cleaned up the grave stones and trimmed the grass around the graves of some of our relatives and the headstones of japanese names I never heard of. I was told later that those were the names of some soldiers that were from the 442 and were killed in WW-2. Years later, I met some of the ones from 442 that lived. they had missing limbs or were in wheelchairs from injuries sustained from the war. They were the first ones to tell me and my brothers to not go into the military. “We fought for this country so you kids could go to college!” Many of my school mates were going “to the lake” waterskiing. at times I wanted to go with them. My parents instilled the importance of Memorial Day on our young minds growing up.

  2. Thank you for this information Ken. It puts things in perspective. I appreciate all your work.

  3. These days, I clean the headstones of all my relatives in general on Memorial Day. For the soldiers and sailors that died, they had families too. (therefore, they have served this nation as well) I just cannot go out having fun on Memorial Day.

  4. Memorial Day and Veterans Day are the 2 days of the year I wear my dog tags – prominently, outside my shirt.
    With the original .30 caliber round that my M1 used, and the original hand-made cross from bamboo, attached.
    ( Yes – in ’61 we still had M1s. )
    Now that I’m completely retired, with time to reflect, I find it difficult to handle.
    Only God knows why I survived.
    Einstein said ” There are only 2 things that are infinite. The universe and the stupidity of man. And I’m not that sure about the universe.”

  5. On this memorial day i will give thanks to all who served, and a prayer of remembrance to all who payed with their lives,
    Your memory will not be forgotten by myself and millions of others who coincidentally will not soil your sacrifice or resolve by giving one single inch of concession to those who are yelling to strip us of our rights.
    If these people wish to expand the list of souls added to the rolls because they despise our rights then so be it, i will gladly add mine.
    The lord is my shepherd

  6. I sometimes watch a show named America Facts vs Fiction. Interesting. Last night this show mentioned the deaths of the Civil War and most of the men died from diseases. TB, pneumonia, and dirty water/etc. Also as modern stats and information comes available they say the number may go up to 750,000 dead. Several thousand also made it through the amputations without antibiotics. What were the doctors using? Yarrow, cauterization? Our forefathers were quite a bit tougher. Just my opinion.

  7. Time to read “In Flanders Field” in honor of all those who have fallen
    Let us never forget nor break faith

  8. I neglected to mention in my earlier comment, that of my original Platoon of 33 in Vietnam, only 8 others beside myself returned. Only 3 (possibly 4) still here.

  9. Reply to Mrs U: For answers to ?’s regarding battlefield medicine during America’s Civil war, remember that Germ Theory was beginning to gain acceptance in the years after the American Civil War. For additional info, look up the names Dr Joseph Lister. Also look up the medical practices in field hospitals from the Crimean War. The sad thing is much we learn about treating people comes from the aftermath of a conflict.

    1. In the CW…the common soldier prayed to God that the be killed outright, rather than be wounded, and many Union men carried a small Bible over their heart, in a little pocket made for it, inside their uniform blouse. This actually did save some lives as the Bible stopped a bullet from penetrating.

      The history of CW medicine is not for the weak of heart. What was learned was put into practice in all of our following wars, and improved upon. One interesting notion common at the time was the idea of “bad air” or “Miasma.” In order to prevail over this danger, hospital windows were kept closed shut, even on the hottest days, by the patients themselves, who would panic if they were opened,…and sulfur was burned in the center of each hospital ward, least the killing air be allowed to enter and make men die.

      Yes, people were much hardier then…than now…as only the hardiest could live into adulthood, in a time where a tiny scratch, or tooth ache, could eventually kill.

  10. Remembering those we have lost in service, and those we have lost who served. Thanking all who served and are still with us – living monuments to who we truly are as Americans.

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