First Memorial Day Observances

Arlington House in 1867
Arlington House in 1867

Library of Congress

Not long after the Civil War ended, communities across the war-torn South, but also in the North, began to pay homage to their fallen heroes by visiting and decorating graves with flowers gathered in the spring when blossoms are new and most plentiful, making Memorial Days -- or Decoration Days, as they were first called -- solemn and widely observed occasions.

Memorial Day was first observed at Arlington National Cemetery in May of 1868 and was held on the portico of Arlington House. Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), John A. Logan, presided over the ceremony, and future US President James Garfield was the principal speaker, both Union Army veterans. With its commanding view of the nation’s capital just across the Potomac River, the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his family was no doubt thought an appropriate venue for the first ceremony, which was attended principally by veterans and bereaved family members of the victorious Union Army.
Tomb of the Unknowns, 1867
Tomb of the Civil War Unknown Dead, ca. 1867

New York Public Library

Arlington House would provide the backdrop for Memorial Day observances at Arlington National Cemetery for many years to come. And so too would be the Tomb of the Civil War Unknown Dead, dedicated in 1866 shortly after the War and located adjacent to the mansion’s flower garden. In 1869 – a year marked by Memorial Day observances around the nation orchestrated by the GAR for May 29 and 30, 1869 – the main observances were moved from Arlington House to a dignitaries’ platform constructed very near the Tomb of the Civil War Unknown Dead. The dignitaries’ platform was at the present site of the Tanner Amphitheater, named in recent years in honor of James Tanner, a disabled Union Army veteran and government secretary who was present at the deathbed of President Lincoln. Later, Tanner became the GAR Commander-in-Chief and worked tirelessly as an advocate for Civil War veterans and North-South reconciliation.
Reproduction of Holmes Stereoscope

NPS Photo

Accompanied by solemn music and prayers, the Memorial Day ceremonies in 1869 featured most importantly the attendance of the newly elected US President, Ulysses S. Grant. President Grant’s attendance was a strong drawing card; reportedly, 25 to 30 thousand Union veterans, widows and orphans, and their families attended the event. Also attending were a number of photographers who used cameras with two lenses to capture twin images simultaneously. The images were later printed side-by-side on sturdy card stock in the then popular format known as “stereoview cards.” When viewed using a Holmes stereoscope (invented by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the father of the later US Supreme Court justice), stereoview cards yielded scenes in three dimensions, very similar to the experience of viewing 3D movies and images today.
Dignitaries Platform, 1873
Dignitaries Platform, 1873.

Library of Congress

A photographer who attended Memorial Day observances at Arlington National Cemetery in 1873 captured a photograph of President Grant and several top US Government officials and military leaders seated on the dignitaries’ platform.

In fact, period photographs and illustrations enrich our appreciation of the depth of feeling for the Civil War fallen honored by the first Memorial Day observances at Arlington National Cemetery. For instance, an 1870 engraving, entitled “View of National Cemetery at Arlington,” is particularly interesting. It shows a central pathway through what was called the “Field of the Dead.” This path was used by mourners to decorate cemetery graves after the main Memorial Day speeches, songs and prayers, and wreath layings were concluded at the dignitaries’ platform and Tomb of the Civil War Unknown Dead.
National Cemetery, 1870
View of National Cemetery at Arlington, 1870.

Library of Congress

The “Field of the Dead” is today Section 13 of Arlington National Cemetery. It is the final resting place of a thousand or more white Union soldiers who gave their lives during the overland campaigns of 1864-65 led by General Grant and which culminated in General Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865. That Section 13 is the former “Field of the Dead” is apparent from the inclusion in the 1870 engraving of the gravesite of George Washington Parke Custis, the original master of Arlington House, and his wife, surrounded by a white picket fence. Today, the Custis graves are still enclosed by a fence, but surrounded by appreciably fewer trees.

Period accounts of the first Memorial Day observances at Arlington National Cemetery generally do not provide information about the participation of black Union Army veterans and bereaved families, though many US Colored Troops (USCT) who lost their lives during the last years of the Civil War are buried in Section 27 along with former “contraband” enslaved men, women and children whose grave marks are importantly engraved with the title “Citizen,” near the Ord-Weitzel Gate in the lower part of the cemetery and the US Marine Corps War Memorial. An important exception, however, are the all-too-brief period newspaper reports of the speech delivered by Frederick Douglass at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, May 30, 1871. Among the finest orators of his time in favor of abolition and later freedmen’s rights, Frederick Douglass’ participation in the 1871 Memorial Day observances undoubtedly drew a number of USCT veterans and families, and area freedmen to the cemetery for the event, not only to hear Douglass speak but also to decorate graves in Section 27 with springtime flowers and other blooms.
Section 13, Arlington National Cemetery
Section 13, Arlington National Cemetery

NPS Photo

Today, along with Section 27, Section 13 and its formerly well-trodden central pathway (now filled-in by many later graves) are unknowingly by-passed by many visitors to Arlington National Cemetery. Moreover, the Tomb of the Civil War Unknown Dead and the Tanner Amphitheater have been replaced as the focal point of present-day Memorial Day observances by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the modern Arlington Memorial Amphitheater, both developed after World War I and located at some distance from the historic area of the cemetery surrounding Arlington House.

Last updated: July 10, 2020

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