The Origins of Memorial Day

U.S. military funeral with American flag
Getty / Zigy Kaluzny

Memorial Day is celebrated in the United States each May to remember and honor military men and women who died while serving in the nation's armed forces. This differs from Veterans Day, which is celebrated in September to honor everyone who served in the U.S. military, whether or not they died in service. From 1868 through 1970, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30th each year. Since then, the official national Memorial Day holiday is traditionally celebrated on the last Monday in May.

Origins of Memorial Day

On May 5, 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)—an organization of former Union soldiers and sailors—established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers.

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. Presided over by General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and other Washington officials, the Memorial Day ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of General Robert E. Lee. 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.

Was Decoration Day Really the First Memorial Day?

While General John A. Logan credited his wife, Mary Logan, with the suggestion for the Decoration Day commemoration, local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead had previously taken place. One of the first occurred in Columbus, Mississippi, on 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 between 1864 and 1866. Both Macon and Columbus, Georgia, claim the title, as well as Richmond, Virginia. The village of Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, also claims to be the first. A stone in a cemetery in Carbondale, Illinois, the wartime home of General Logan, carries the statement that the first Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866. Approximately twenty-five 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, New York, the "birthplace" of Memorial Day. A local ceremony held 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 either informal, not community-wide or one-time events.

Confederate Memorial Day

Many Southern states also 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 26th. North and South Carolina observe it May 10th, Louisiana on June 3rd and Tennessee calls that date Confederate Decoration Day. Texas celebrates Confederate Heroes Day January 19th and Virginia calls the last Monday in May Confederate Memorial Day.

Learn the Stories of Your Military Ancestors

Memorial Day began as a tribute to Civil War dead, and it was not until after World War I that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. 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." What a fitting reminder to all of us to learn about and tell the stories of our military ancestors who died in service.

Portions of the above article courtesy of the U.S. Veterans Administration

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Powell, Kimberly. "The Origins of Memorial Day." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Powell, Kimberly. (2021, February 16). The Origins of Memorial Day. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "The Origins of Memorial Day." ThoughtCo. (accessed July 26, 2021).