Memorial Day and the History of the U.S. Armed Forces

On Memorial Day we pay our respects to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. To all veterans and their families: We salute you and thank you for your service. 

Memorial Day commemorations began after the Civil War to honor the more than 600,000 deaths in America’s most lethal war. Beginning in the mid-1860’s communities began holding springtime tributes to commemorate the soldiers who fallen during the Civil War.  Originally known as “Decoration Day,” the holiday was officially recognized by Congress in 1971.  

Waterloo,  New York, is commonly recognized as the birthplace of Memorial Day on May 5, 1866. Others would cite to Charleston, South Carolina, where on May 1, 1866 a parade of 10,000 led by recently freed slaves paid respects to 257 slain Union Soldiers, whose remains were re-buried after being relocated from a mass gave at a Confederate prison camp.

In honor of Memorial Day, has compiled the following posts which tell the story of the United States armed forces.

The Militia Act of 1792: President George Washington understood that “[t]o be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” President Ronald Reagan would later popularize the same concept of “peace through strength.” This post describes the early efforts by the Second Congress to provide for a well regulated militia, in response to horrific military losses at the Battle of the Wabash River.

The Act Establishing the Navy (1798) tells the story of the re-establishment of the Navy by President Adams and the Fifth Congress, at a time when America was gearing up for war with France. The Continental Navy had been disbanded following the American Revolutionary War and needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. The construction of six frigates was authorized by Congress, including the USS Constitution (known as Old Ironsides).

The Marine Corp Act (1798) was also established by President Adams who recognized that the military had degraded and was ill-equipped to successfully defend the nation during the undeclared Quasi-War with France. Further hostilities were avoided when President Adams concluded the Treaty of Morfontaine with Napoleon, which opened the door for President Jefferson to later negotiate for the Louisiana Purchase.

The Act Providing for More Effective Collection of Duties, creating the Coast Guard (1790): After the Continental Navy was dismantled following the American Revolution, the Coast Guard (also known as the Cutter Service/Revenue Marine) was the nation’s only naval force during the first decade after establishment of the U.S. Constitution. The first cutter, the Massachusetts, was commissioned in 1791.

The Conscription Act (1863) was the nation’s first military draft imposed by President Lincoln when it became clear that a purely volunteer army was incapable of winning the Civil War and preserving the union.

The history of military benefits for our veterans is told in a series of posts about the inadequate Revolutionary War Pensions. In 1776, at the request of General George Washington, the Continental Congress simultaneously attempted to encourage military enlistment while limiting desertion by granting half pay for life in cases of loss of limb or other serious disability. The first Federal Military Pensions were made possible by Alexander Hamilton’s financial plan to restore federal credit and assume state debt.

Hamilton’s Whiskey Tax (the first internal revenue law) led to rioting in Western Pennsylvania and the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1794, George Washington invoked the Militia Act of 1792 and personally led 13,000 troops from Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey to arrest the protestors, who were later pardoned. As recognized by historian Joseph Ellis, this would be the “first and only time a sitting American president led troops in the field.”

Although Arlington National Cemetery is currently closed to the general public this Memorial Day, the Arlington Cemetery website is open for business.

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