The Origins of
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 it should
be May 30. It is believed the 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,
The ceremonies centered on the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington
mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S.
Grant and other Washington officials presided. 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 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 General 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.
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. 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
America's 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
Many Southern states 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
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 more than 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."
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