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The Origins of Memorial Day

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  • Ram Lau
    http://genealogy.about.com/library/blmemday.htm The Origins of Memorial Day Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization
    Message 1 of 1 , May 29, 2006
      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."
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