Monday is Memorial Day in the United States.

A federal holiday observed annually on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day is a day of remembering Americans who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Memorial Day originated in the years following the American Civil War (1861–1865), when it was known as Decoration Day. During the war, an increasingly formal practice of laying flowers upon the battlefields and burial grounds of the war dead had taken shape. Patterns of remembrance and decoration of burial sites continued and evolved after the war, when the sheer number of dead soldiers (an estimated 750,000 soldiers, thought to represent ten percent of all Northern males 20–45 years old, and 30 percent of all Southern white males of similar age) caused burial and memorialization to take on profound new significance in the American culture.

After the losses of World War I, the concept of Decoration Day was expanded to honor all Americans lost in all wars fought by U.S. forces. Many Americans observed it by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades. The term “Memorial Day” came into common usage in the years following World War II. It was declared a federal holiday in 1967.

In the late 20th century, Memorial Day became, in the minds of many Americans, an occasion for more general expressions of memory, as people visited the graves of their deceased relatives in church cemeteries, whether they had served in the nation’s military or not. It also became a long weekend increasingly devoted to shopping, family gatherings, outdoor recreation, and national media events such as the Indianapolis 500 auto race, held on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. The increased commercialization of Memorial Day and its decline as a day of national remembrance has been decried by some veterans and historic groups.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address

In the following scene from the 1993 production Gettysburg, Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain – in civilian life, a college professor from Maine – addresses a group of rebellious volunteers about the reasons for fighting in the Union cause. Watch the faces of these common men as Chamberlain earnestly tells them that in America, “we all have value”, “here you we judge you by what you do, not who your father was” and “here is the place to build a home”.

This outstanding production, based upon Michael Shaara’s historic novel The Killer Angels, is a unique and worthwhile telling of the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, and one that I highly recommend.