Memorial Day History
Three years after the conclusion of the Civil War, on May 5, 1868, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed annually on May 30th as a way for all Americans to honor fallen soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers. It is speculated that this date was chosen because flowers would be flourishing throughout the nation at this time of year – providing a beautiful tribute to those who have heroically served our country. Decoration day will go on to be called Memorial Day.
On May 30, 1868, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan proclaimed that Decoration Day (Memorial Day) should be observed as a nationwide commemoration of fallen soldiers of the Civil War. The first major event was held at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside Washington, D.C., where family and friends adorned grave sites with flowers to honor the memory of their lost loved ones on this special day. To ensure that blooms were abundant throughout the country on that same day each year, Logan chose Decoration Day (Memorial Day) to take place annually on May 30th — a date which has since been maintained in recognition of those who gave their lives during our nation’s greatest struggle.
The solemn proceedings held at the formerly-owned residence of General Robert E. Lee, Arlington mansion, were presided over by esteemed Washington officials; including Generals Ulysses S. Grant and his wife. After several speeches, some of the children from Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home accompanied by members of The Grand Army Of The Republic marched through the cemetery to pay their respects with flower offerings and prayerful hymns dedicated to both Union and Confederate graves.
The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. As Moment of Remembrance, founder Carmella LaSpada states: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.” Source: VA.gov
In recognition of the heroic sacrifices made by our fallen heroes, in December 2000, the United States Congress and President passed ‘The National Moment of Remembrance Act’ (P.L. 106-579). The White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance was established to promote honoring this day as well as Memorial Day across the nation–as an opportunity for Americans to show their gratitude for the freedom and opportunity that these sacrifices provided us.
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., on 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 also placed some of their flowers on those graves.
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. 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 also Richmond, Va. The village of Boalsburg, Pa., claims it began there two years earlier.
A stone in a Carbondale, Ill., cemetery says that the first Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866. Carbondale was the wartime home of Gen. Logan.
Official Birthplace Declared
In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. A ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed, and residents flew flags at half-staff. Supporters of Waterloo’s claim say earlier observances in other places were informal, not community-wide or one-time events.
By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day, and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.
However, it was not until after World War I 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, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.
Some States Have Confederate Observances
Many Southern states also have their own days for honoring the Confederate dead. Mississippi celebrates Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday of April, Alabama on the fourth Monday of April, and Georgia on April 26. North and South Carolina observe it on May 10, Louisiana on June 3, and Tennessee calls that date Confederate Decoration Day. Texas celebrates Confederate Heroes Day on 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 reverent visitors and fond mourners to come and go. 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 republic.”
The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those attending today’s observance, about 5,000 people. Then, 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.
Memorial Day Resources
- History of Memorial Day
- Memorial Day Order
- National Cemetery Administration
- National and State Veterans Cemeteries
- Arlington National Cemetery
- Displaying the Flag at Half-staff
- General Flag Display Guidelines
- Folding the Flag
- Poppy Flower
Get it straight: The difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day