Memorial Day History
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs…. Office of Public Affairs
Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — 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 that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. 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 both 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, 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 being 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.
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, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also 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 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 republic.”
The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that attend today’s observance, 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.”
To ensure the sacrifices of America’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.
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.”
The Story Told From A Different Perspective – First Memorial Day Was Black
There are many variations of the claim to the first recognition of Memorial Day depending on where you search, what part of the U.S. you are from and such. I happen to find this claim in the Charleston, S.C. slave community very convincing. I invite you to do further research on your own. The WebSteward
Memorial Day First Recognized by Blacks in Charleston, SC?
Article appearing on BLACKAMERICAWEB.COM – Memorial Day holds a special place for many Americans, especially those who serve in the nation’s military. While past and current members of the armed forces are most certainly honored, what few realize is that the practice of celebrating America’s soldiers gained popularity due to a group of freed Blacks in the South.
In the town of Charleston in South Carolina, the celebration of what was called “Decoration Day” was held to give respects to fallen soldiers from the Union Army in the North. The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, with the Union victorious over its Confederate foes. In order to celebrate the victory and honor the dead, on May 1 of that year around 10,000 freed Black men and women gathered in historic Hampton Park.
The group placed flowers on the graves of unknown soldiers, a practice held often in times of war. The event caught the attention of the nation, and it was largely understood by Whites to be a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation passing in 1863. However, it was far more than that for those gathered.
The town was a Confederate stronghold, and over 250 soldiers died as prisoners there as Union forces began to overtake the region. The Confederate soldiers buried the dead in unmarked graves and fled in fear. The freed Blacks who came to the Decoration Day event viewed those soldiers as martyrs who died selflessly for their freedom. While there were Black soldiers in the Union Army, the celebration was in honor of all who fought for the winning side.
David Blight, a history professor at Yale University, has credited the Black population of Charleston as the inventors of the first Memorial Day celebration although other cities have made similar claims in attempts to dispute Blight’s research. Still, most historians agree that it is at least the first widely recognized celebration of fallen soldiers in history.