Memorial Day has its origins in the aftermath of the Civil War.
On May 5, 1868, the head of the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of Union veterans, established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to mark the graves of the war dead with flowers, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is thought the date was selected because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
Logan’s order for his posts to decorate graves “with the choicest flowers of springtime,” and 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 first large observance marking the observance was held in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. It focused on the “mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee.”
Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant presided over the event, which included 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.
By the time of the Arlington observance, local tributes to the Civil War dead already had been held in various places around the nation.
One of the first occurred in Columbus, Miss., on April 25, 1866. 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,” per the VA.
Cities in the North and the South today claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. Both Macon and Columbus, Ga., claim the title, as well as Richmond, Va., Boalsburg, Pa., and Carbondale, Ill., which was Logan’s wartime home.
Approximately 25 places have been named in connection with the origin of Memorial Day, many of them in the South, where most of the Civil War's dead were buried.
However, in 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. During a ceremony there on May 5, 1866, the community honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War, and businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff. Supporters of Waterloo’s claim say earlier observances in other places were either informal, not community-wide, or one-time events.
Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation by the end of the 19th century. State legislatures had passed proclamations designating the day. Both the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.
The day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars after the First World War. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress.
Reach Julia LeDoux at Julia@connectingvets.com.
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