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 General

The Origins of Memorial Day

May 24, 2013

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. 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.

Local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead already had been held in various places. 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, 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 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, 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.

To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the "National Moment of Remembrance" resolution was passed on Dec 2000 which asks that at 3 p.m. local time, for all Americans "To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to 'Taps."