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Memorial Day: 5 historical facts to know this weekend

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Here's what you probably know about Memorial Day in the United States. It's a three-day holiday. People are expected to travel 50 miles (or more).

There will be barbecue and maybe, you'll spend a few moments to reflect on what Memorial Day is really about: remembering those who gave their lives in service. But the national holiday, celebrated since 1868, is more than just a long weekend to kick off the summer.

1. Memorial Day once went by another name. On May 5, 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day. It was meant as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers.

2. The date was chosen to bring May flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30 because he thought it was at this point that flowers would have bloomed to be at their most beautiful. His order for his posts to decorate graves in 1868 read, “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. ... Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

3. It started with Confederates. One of the first Memorial Day celebrations occurred in in Columbus, Miss., April 25, 1866, a full two years before it became an officially sanctioned holiday. A group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in Battle at Shiloh, were the graves were neglected because they were the enemy. There is even a hymn in honor of these women, "Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping." Nella L Sweet, who wrote the hymn, dedicated it "to the ladies of the South who are decorating the graves of the Confederate dead.”

4. Several Southern states celebrate Confederate soldiers. Many Southern states celebrate Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday of April. Alabama celebrates on the fourth Monday of April, and Georgia on April 26. North and South Carolina observe Decoration Day on May 10. Both Louisiana and Tennessee call June 3 Confederate Decoration Day. Texas celebrates Confederate Heroes Day in January.

5. After World War I, all American soldiers were honored. Up until this point Memorial Day only officially celebrated those soldiers who died in the Civil War. Since then Memorial Day honors all soldiers who served and died for the United States. 

In 1915, Moina Michael wrote the following poem to honor Memorial Day:

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We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

It was from this reference that people wear poppies as a small honor to service men and women lost in battle.

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Women places flowers at a grave at the Memphis National Cemetery on Friday in Memphis, Tenn.

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