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Memorial Day, from Civil War to the Present [Video]

The holiday originated in a divided nation; now it both honors those who died and marks the entrance of summer.

Editor's Note: The original article on Memorial Day's history first appeared on Norwalk, CT Patch in 2011. Travel information from AAA has been updated.

Traditionally, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer and a weekend full of parades, hamburgers and long road trips. Most importantly, it’s a day to remember those who have died in defense of this country, although the holiday had a rocky start in this regard.

Despite its status as a national holiday, the origins of what was once known as “Decoration Day” are shrouded in incomplete historical records and the division between the North and the South caused by the Civil War.

According to USMemorialDay.org, the original name for the holiday was inspired when women adorned Confederate soldiers’ gravestones after the Civil War ended. But tensions between the two regions caused the holiday to be stuck in limbo as a national celebration for more than 50 years.

Memorial Day was first proclaimed in 1868 when the graves of soldiers buried at Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C. were decorated. By 1890, all the northern states adopted the holiday, but the South refused and celebrated the dead in their own ways. That changed in the early 20th century, when the holiday was changed to also honor the people who died in World War I.

In 1971, the U.S. Congress officially made Memorial Day a federal holiday.

Vacation

The holiday is also a time to travel. According to AAA, 34.8 million Americans are projected to travel 50 miles or more from home during the long holiday weekend. That's up 1.2 percent, or 500,000 travelers, from the 34.3 million travelers last year, AAA says.

Here are some more stats: 

  • About 30.7 million people plan to drive to their destination, an increase of 1.2 percent from last year's 30.3 million drivers.
  • Nearly nine out of 10 holiday travelers -- 88 percent -- hit the nation’s roads during the Memorial Day weekend. Automobile travel keeps its traditional lead spot as the dominate mode of holiday travel transportation, AAA says.
  • 53 percent of people intending to travel said in a survey that recent increases in gasoline prices would not impact their Memorial Day holiday travel plans, AAA said.
  • 47 percent of travelers said gas prices would impact their travel plans. Of those, 9 percent are planning to take a shorter trip; 4 percent will travel by an alternate mode of transportation; and 34 percent will economize in other areas, AAA said.

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