Memorial Day’s roots go back to the Civil War. It was formerly known as Decoration Day, a day when the ladies went out and decorated the graves of fallen soldiers. Sadly, following the Civil War, there were many soldiers buried in graves far from home and family. People with means often paid to have their husbands, sons, or fathers brought home. Not everyone could do this so the south, in particular, is peppered with the graves of those who died in battle, both federal cemeteries and confederate cemeteries.
The first Memorial Day was officially recognized on May 30, 1868, about 3 years after the end of the civil war and really extended only to northern troops, since it spoke of those who had given their lives to squelch ‘the rebellion.’ This proclaimation was given as a General’s Order.
According to Wiki:
Following the end of the Civil War, many communities set aside a day to mark the end of the war or as a memorial to those who had died. Some of the places creating an early memorial day include Sharpsburg, Maryland, located near Antietam Battlefield; Charleston, South Carolina; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Petersburg, Virginia; Carbondale, Illinois; Columbus, Mississippi; many communities in Vermont; and some two dozen other cities and towns. These observances coalesced around Decoration Day, honoring the Union dead, and the several Confederate Memorial Days
Moving from past to present, May 30 continued to be recognized as Memorial Day until the concept of the 3 day weekend took hold. Currently, the last Monday in May is the official federal holiday. Many veterans consider 3 day weekend holiday offensive and have attempted to move back to the traditional day of observation on May 30. To date, their efforts have been unsuccessful. Senator Daniel Inouye has introduced legislation every year since 1987 to return Memorial Day to May 30.
For the past 20 plus years, Rolling Thunder has been a big part of the Washington, DC Memorial Day weekend. Rolling Thunder mainly focuses on POWs and MIAs who have not yet returned. Their website gives the details and also has a schedule of weekend activities. Motorcycle enthusiasts come from all over the United States to honor veterans and in particular, those who are still missing.
If you hear a rumble and a roar of engines this weekend, it is probably Rolling Thunder. If you have never seen them roll and roar across Memorial Bridge, it is quite a sight (and sound) to behold.
Longer Version ( Warning: some of this video might be found offensive.)