The Real Origin of Memorial Day
While most Americans appreciate the day off from work and the expected barbecues and summer festivities associated with Memorial Day, for many others it is a very serious day of remembrance and reflection. Other patriotic holidays – like the Fourth of July or Armed Forces Day – celebrate all members of the military, and with good reason. But Memorial Day, celebrated the last Monday in May each year, is specifically set aside to honor those who have lost their life in active military service.
Originally known as “Decoration Day” and traditionally celebrated on May 30, the day was set aside to encourage Americans to visit the graves of those who perished in war and decorate their tombstones. Although families and citizens have been honoring their fallen warriors for hundreds of years, the formally designated Memorial Day originated with an order issued in 1868 by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic.
Interestingly, there are numerous accounts from all over the U.S. as to how the “first” Memorial Day took place (more than two dozen U.S. cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day), although all center on the ending of the American Civil War. A few of the possible origin stories include:
- In 1864, women from Boalsburg, Pa., decorated with flowers the graves of the dead from the just-fought Battle of Gettysburg. The next year, a group of women did the same for the graves of soldiers buried in a Vicksburg, Miss., cemetery.
- In April 1866, women from the Civil War hospital town of Columbus, Miss., laid flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. These four women met in a 12-gabled house on North Fourth Street and then solemnly walked to Friendship Cemetery to decorate the graves of soldiers from both sides of the war.
- In April 1866, in Carbondale, Ill., 219 Civil War veterans marched through town in memory of the fallen to the Woodlawn Cemetery, where General Logan delivered the principal address. The ceremony gave Carbondale its claim to the first organized, community-wide Memorial Day observance.
- Waterloo, N.Y. began holding an annual community service on May 5, 1866, and the small village was decorated with flags at half-mast, and draped with evergreens and mourning black. Although many towns claimed the title, it was Waterloo that won congressional recognition 100 years later as the "birthplace of Memorial Day."
- In May 1868, a large observance was held at Arlington National Cemetery, with ceremonies, speeches, parades, and prayers centered around the mansion that was once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. This is, of course, the traditional location for the current U.S. president to visit on Memorial Day and participate in a symbolic wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
- On May 1, 1865 in Charleston, SC, a group of African Americans properly reburied and honored 257 Union soldiers found at a local racetrack turned war prison. The ceremony was said to include more than 10,000 people – most of them black former slaves – and culminated with a renaming of the area to “Martyrs of the Race Course” and flowers laid so thick on the tombs that you could no longer see the individual graves.
As you can see, when the Civil War finally came to a close, war-weary Americans everywhere had the same idea: It was important to honor and always remember those who had given their lives for their country. This still holds true today and all Americans should take pause on this important day to, at the least, observe a moment of silence and thanks for all fallen members of the armed services.
Written by Megan Hammons