The Origins of Memorial Day
The Origins of Memorial Day
Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an
organization of former Union soldiers and sailors - the Grand Army of
the Republic (GAR) - established Decoration Day as a time for the
nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen.
John A. Logan declared it should be May 30. The first large observance
was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac
River from Washington, D.C. The cemetery already held the remains of
20,000 Union dead and several hundred Confederate dead.
Presided over by Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and other Washington
officials, the Memorial Day ceremonies centered around the
mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of
Gen. Robert E. Lee. After speeches, children from the Soldiers' and
Sailors' Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the
cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves,
reciting prayers and singing hymns.
Local Observances Claim To Be First
Local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead already had been held
in various places. One of the first occurred in Columbus, Miss., April
25, 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the
graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh.
Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were
the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed
some of their flowers on those graves, as well.
Today cities in the North and the South claim to be the birthplace of
Memorial Day in 1866. Both Macon and Columbus, Ga., claim the title,
as well as Richmond, Va. The village of Boalsburg, Pa., claims it
began there two years earlier. A stone in a Carbondale, Ill., cemetery
carries the statement that the first Decoration Day ceremony took
place there on April 29, 1866. Carbondale was the wartime home of Gen.
Logan. Approximately 25 places have been named in connection with the
origin of Memorial Day, many of them in the South where most of the
war dead were buried.
Official Birthplace Declared
In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo,
N.Y., the "birthplace" of Memorial Day. There a ceremony on May 5,
1866, was reported to have honored local soldiers and sailors who had
fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at
half-mast. Supporters of Waterloo's claim say earlier observances in
other places were either informal, not community-wide or one-time events.
By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being
held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed
proclamations designating the day. The Army and Navy adopted
regulations for proper observance at their facilities. It was not
until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor
those who have died in all American wars. In 1971 Memorial Day was
declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, and designated as
the last Monday in May.
Some States Have Confederate Observances
Many Southern states also have their own days for honoring the
Confederate dead. Mississippi celebrates Confederate Memorial Day the
last Monday of April, Alabama on the fourth Monday of April, and
Georgia on April 26. North and South Carolina observe it May 10,
Louisiana on June 3 and Tennessee calls that date Confederate
Decoration Day. Texas celebrates Confederate Heroes Day January 19 and
Virginia calls the last Monday in May Confederate Memorial Day.
Gen. Logan's order for his posts to decorate graves in 1868 "with the
choicest flowers of springtime" urged: "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
The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington
National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that attend
recent observances, about 5,000 people. Then, as now, small American
flags were placed on each grave - a tradition followed at many
national cemeteries today. In recent years, the custom has grown in
many families to decorate the graves of all departed loved ones.
The origins of special services to honor those who die in war can be
found in antiquity. The Athenian leader Pericles offered a tribute to
the fallen heroes of the Peloponnesian War over 24 centuries ago that
could be applied today to the 1.1 million Americans who have died in
the nation's wars: "Not only are they commemorated by columns and
inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them,
graven not on stone but in the hearts of men."