Memorial Day: The Women Behind Its Origins and History

Memorial to Army and Navy Nurses unveiled in Arlington.

Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

While Veterans Day in November is to honor all those who served their nation in war, Memorial Day is primarily to honor those who died in military service. This all-American holiday has its roots in unexpected places.

Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic issued the 1868 proclamation declaring the first Decoration Day, which was celebrated with a large memorial observance at Arlington National Cemetery, with about five thousand attending. Those attending placed small flags on the graves of veterans. General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife presided at the ceremony.

Logan credited his wife, Mary Logan, with the suggestion for the commemoration. The role of his wife may explain why Grant's wife co-presided over the ceremony.

But the idea had other roots, as well, going back at least to 1864.

A First Memorial Day

In 1865, a group of 10,000 freed formerly enslaved people in South Carolina along with a few White supporters—teachers and missionaries—marched in honor of Union soldiers, some of whom had been Confederate prisoners, reburied by the freed Black Charlestonians. The prisoners had been buried in a mass grave when they died at the prison.

While this ceremony can be called the first Memorial Day, it wasn't repeated, and was soon nearly forgotten.

More Direct Root of Current Celebration

The acknowledged and more direct root of Decoration Day was the practice of women of decorating the graves of their loved ones who had died in the Civil War.

Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30 after 1868. Then in 1971 the celebration was moved to the last Monday in May, to make a long weekend, though a few states kept to the May 30 date.

Decorating Graves

In addition to the Charleston march and a long practice of both Union and Confederate supporters decorating the graves of their own, a particular event seems to have been a key inspiration. On April 25, 1866, in Columbus, Mississippi, a women's group, the Ladies Memorial Association, decorated the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. In a nation trying to find a way to move on after a war that split the country, states, communities, and even families, this gesture was welcomed as a way to lay the past to rest while honoring those who had fought on either side.

The first formal observance seems to have been on May 5, 1866, in Waterloo, New York. President Lyndon Johnson recognized Waterloo as the "Birthplace of Memorial Day."

On May 30, 1870, General Logan gave an address in honor of the new commemorative holiday. In it he said: "This Memorial Day, on which we decorate their graves with the tokens of love and affection, is no idle ceremony with us, to pass away an hour; but it brings back to our minds in all their vividness the fearful conflicts of that terrible war in which they fell as victims... Let us, then, all unite in the solemn feelings of the hour, and tender with our flowers the warmest sympathies of our souls! Let us revive our patriotism and love of country by this act, and strengthen our loyalty by the example of the noble dead around us...."

By the late 19th century, with the rise of the Lost Cause ideology in the South, the South was celebrating Confederate Memorial Day. This separation largely died out in the 20th century, especially with the change in name of the Northern form of the holiday from Decoration Day to Memorial Day, and then the creation of a special Monday holiday for Memorial Day in 1968.

Some veterans' groups were opposed to the date change to a Monday, arguing that it undermined the real meaning of Memorial Day.

Other cities that claim to have been the origin of Decoration Day include Carbondale, Illinois (home of General Logan during the war), Richmond, Virginia, and Macon, Georgia.

Official Birthplace Declared

Despite the other claims, Waterloo, New York, got the title of "birthplace" of Memorial Day after a May 5, 1966 ceremony for local veterans. Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson issued the declaration.

Poppies for Memorial Day

The poem "In Flanders Fields" commemorated fallen war dead. And it includes a reference to poppies. But it was not until 1915 that a woman, Moina Michael, wrote her own poem about cherishing "the Poppy red," and began encouraging people to wear red poppies for Memorial Day, wearing one herself. Moina Michael is featured on a 3 cent postage stamp in the United States, issued in 1948.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Memorial Day: The Women Behind Its Origins and History." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Memorial Day: The Women Behind Its Origins and History. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Memorial Day: The Women Behind Its Origins and History." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).