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Commemorate Memorial Day

Archeologists use shallow trenching to locate unrecorded graves at Vicksburg National Cemetery. Extensive research failed to identify the 13 unknown soldiers, but their graves are now properly marked with stones, honoring their sacrifice.

Memorial Day takes place annually on the last Monday of May in the United States. Known as “Decoration Day” until 1882, the holiday began after the Civil War to memorialize fallen soldiers. By the 20th century, its purpose had expanded to honor all Americans who have died in war. Archeology helps us to remember both the reasons behind war and the places where Americans lived, fought, and died for their beliefs.

The first Memorial Day commemoration took place at Hampton Park in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865. The park was a horse racing track before the Confederate Army turned it into an open air prison in the last months of the war. Approximately 260 Union soldiers were interred there in unmarked graves. Black men and women—people who were freed as a result of the war—gathered at the race track in April to reinter the soldiers in proper graves. On May 1, a parade of 10,000 marchers was led by 3,000 children carrying roses and singing the song “John Brown’s Body.” The crowd listened to preachers, sang “America the Beautiful” and other songs, watched members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (an African American unit) march, and had picnics. In 1871, the soldiers were reinterred again at the Beaufort and Florence National Cemeteries.

Nationwide observance of Decoration Day began in 1868. On May 30, orphans strewed flowers on Union soldiers’ graves at Arlington National Cemetery. The Union army established the cemetery on the former plantation of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Soldiers occupied the mansion, known as Arlington House. Archeology at the slave quarters reminds us that slavery was a primary cause of the war that led to the loss of so many lives on both the Union and Confederate sides. Learn more about archeological contributions to remembering the Civil War and soldiers’ sacrifices in the mid-19th century at Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge, Buffalo Soldiers in the Guadalupe Mountains, and Manassas.

World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument documents the events of the war in Hawaii, the Pacific Coast, and Guam. The USS Arizona became the final resting place for 1,177 soldiers when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1944. Since 2000, archeologists who specialize in submerged resources have conducted research on the USS Arizona. Read about what they discovered, and options to preserve the ship, in the USS Arizona Memorial Submerged Cultural Resources Study. Archeology documents not only aggression against the United States, but also the the wartime actions taken by the nation within its borders and against its citizens. Tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were forced to live in internment camps during World War II. Minidoka and Manzanar were leveled after the war ended, but archeology has recovered the locations of buildings, walkways, memorials, and gardens. Former residents and their families have participated in excavations. Learn more in an interview with an archeologist who has led investigations at internment camps.

Remember, too, that the Memorial Day holiday weekend is a great time to visit archeology at a NPS unit near you! When you go, be sure not to dig, disturb archeological sites, or pick up artifacts. The NPS needs your help to ensure that future generations can pay their own respects to the soldiers and causes that make Memorial Day an important commemoration.