Last updated: June 6, 2021
Decoration Day dates back to the 1860s, when local groups from the North and South laid flowers on the graves of the Civil War soldiers who fell in battle. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union veterans, officially established Decoration Day in 1868. The name Memorial Day was used with, or in place of, Decoration Day over the next few decades, and after World War I, the day came to honor veterans from all wars, not only the Civil War. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day to be a national holiday, to be observed the last Monday in May.
On May 30, 1868, a crowd of more than 5,000 gathered at Arlington National Cemetery for the first Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day) exercises. Before strewing flowers upon the graves of the dead, the crowd listened to an address by James Abram Garfield (1831–81), then an Ohio congressman who had served as a Union major general during the Civil War. In this first of such annual addresses at Arlington National Cemetery and across the nation, Garfield set a standard by explaining what Decoration Day is all about and why it should be commemorated.
Below is the speech then Congressman Garfield gave at Arlington Cemetery:
I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here, beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung. With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.
For the noblest man that lives, there still remains a conflict. He must still withstand the assaults of time and fortune, must still be assailed with temptations, before which lofty natures have fallen; but with these the conflict ended, the victory was won, when death stamped on them the great seal of heroic character, and closed a record which years can never blot.
I know of nothing more appropriate on this occasion than to inquire what brought these men here; what high motive led them to condense life into an hour, and to crown that hour by joyfully welcoming death? Let us consider.
Eight years ago this was the most unwarlike nation of the earth. For nearly fifty years1 no spot in any of these states had been the scene of battle. Thirty millions of people had an army of less than ten thousand men. The faith of our people in the stability and permanence of their institutions was like their faith in the eternal course of nature. Peace, liberty, and personal security were blessings as common and universal as sunshine and showers and fruitful seasons; and all sprang from a single source, the old American principle that all owe due submission and obedience to the lawfully expressed will of the majority. This is not one of the doctrines of our political system—it is the system itself. It is our political firmament, in which all other truths are set, as stars in Heaven. It is the encasing air, the breath of the Nation’s life. Against this principle the whole weight of the rebellion was thrown. Its overthrow would have brought such ruin as might follow in the physical universe, if the power of gravitation were destroyed and
“Nature’s concord broke,
Among the constellations war were sprung,
Two planets, rushing from aspect malign
Of fiercest opposition, in mid-sky
Should combat, and their jarring spheres confound.”
The Nation was summoned to arms by every high motive which can inspire men. Two centuries of freedom had made its people unfit for despotism. They must save their Government or miserably perish.
As a flash of lightning in a midnight tempest reveals the abysmal horrors of the sea, so did the flash of the first gun disclose the awful abyss into which rebellion was ready to plunge us. In a moment the fire was lighted in twenty million hearts. In a moment we were the most warlike Nation on the earth. In a moment we were not merely a people with an army—we were a people in arms. The Nation was in column—not all at the front, but all in the array.
I love to believe that no heroic sacrifice is ever lost; that the characters of men are molded and inspired by what their fathers have done; that treasured up in American souls are all the unconscious influences of the great deeds of the Anglo-Saxon race, from Agincourt to Bunker Hill. It was such an influence that led a young Greek, two thousand years ago, when musing on the battle of Marathon, to exclaim, “the trophies of Miltiades will not let me sleep!” Could these men be silent in 1861; these, whose ancestors had felt the inspiration of battle on every field where civilization had fought in the last thousand years? Read their answer in this green turf. Each for himself gathered up the cherished purposes of life—its aims and ambitions, its dearest affections—and flung all, with life itself, into the scale of battle.
We began the war for the Union alone; but we had not gone far into its darkness before a new element was added to the conflict, which filled the army and the nation with cheerful but intense religious enthusiasm. In lessons that could not be misunderstood, the Nation was taught that God had linked to our own, the destiny of an enslaved race- that their liberty and our Union were indeed "one and inseparable." It was this that made the soul of John Brown the marching companion of our soldiers, and made them sing as they went down to battle-
In the beauty of the lilies Chris was born, across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom which transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free;
While God is marching on.
With such inspirations, failure was impossible. The struggle consecrated, in some degree, every man who bore a worthy path. I can never forget an incident, illustrative of this thought, which it was my fortune to witness, near sunset of the second day at Chickamauga, when the beleaguered but unbroken left wing of our army had again and again repelled the assaults of more than double their numbers, and when each soldier felt that to his individual hands were committed the life of the army and the honor of his country. It was just after a division had fired its last cartridge, and had repelled a charge at the point of the bayonet, that the great-hearted commander took the hand of an humble soldier and thanked him for his steadfast courage. The soldier stood silent for a moment, and then said, with deep emotion, “George H. Thomas has taken this hand in his. I’ll knock down any mean man that offers to take it hereafter.” This rough sentence was full of meaning. He felt that something had happened to his hand which consecrated it. Could a hand bear our banner in battle and not be forever consecrated to honor and virtue? But doubly consecrated were these who received into their own hearts the fatal shafts, aimed at the life of their country. Fortunate men! Your country lives because you died! Your fame is placed where the breath of calumny can never reach it; where the mistakes of a weary life can never dim its brightness! Coming generations will rise up to call you blessed!
And now consider this silent assembly of the dead. What does it represent? Nay, rather, what does it not represent? It is an epitome of the war. Here are sheaves reaped in the harvest of death, from every battlefield of Virginia. If each grave had a voice to tell us what its silent tenant last saw and heard on earth, we might stand, with uncovered heads, and hear the whole story of the war. We should hear that one perished when the first great drops of the crimson shower began to fall, when the darkness of that first disaster at Manassas fell like an eclipse on the Nation; that another died of disease while wearily waiting for winter to end; that this one fell on the field, in sight of the spires of Richmond, little dreaming that the flag must be carried through three more years of blood before it should be planted in that citadel of treason; and that one fell when the tide of war had swept us back till the roar of rebel guns shook the dome of yonder Capitol, and re-echoed in the chambers of the Executive Mansion. We should hear mingled voices from the Rappahannock, the Rapidan, the Chickahominy, and the James; solemn voices from the Wilderness, and triumphant shouts from the Shenandoah, from Petersburg, and the Five Forks, mingled with the wild acclaim of victory and the sweet chorus of returning peace. The voices of these dead will forever fill the land like holy benedictions.
What other spot so fitting for their last resting place as this under the shadow of the Capitol saved by their valor? Here, where the grim edge of battle joined; here, where all the hope and fear and agony of their country centered; here let them rest, asleep on the Nation’s heart, entombed in the Nation’s love!
The view from this spot bears some resemblance to that which greets the eye at Rome. In sight of the Capitoline Hill, up and across the Tiber, and overlooking the city, is a hill, not rugged or lofty, but known as the Vatican Mount. At the beginning of the Christian Era, an Imperial circus stood on its summit. There, gladiator slaves died for the sport of Rome; and wild beasts fought with wilder men. In that arena, a Gallilean fisherman gave up his life a sacrifice for his faith. No human life was ever so nobly avenged. On that spot was reared the proudest Christian temple ever built by human hands. For its adornment, the rich offerings of every clime and kingdom have been contributed. And now, after eighteen centuries, the hearts of two hundred million people turn towards it with reverence when they worship God. As the traveler descends the Appenines, he sees the dome of St. Peter rising above the desolate Campaigns and the dead city, long before the seven hills and ruined palaces appear to his view. The fame of the dead fisherman has outlived the glory of the Eternal City. A noble life, crowned with heroic death rises above and outlives the pride and pomp and glory of the mightiest empire of the earth.
Seen from the western slope of our Capitol, in direction, distance, and appearance, this spot is not unlike the Vatican Mount; though the river that flows at our feet is larger than a hundred Tibers. Seven years ago, this was the home of one who lifted his sword against the life of his country, and who became the great Imperator of the rebellion. The soil beneath our feet was watered by the tears of slaves, in whose hearts the sight of yonder proud Capitol awakened no pride and inspired no hope. The face of the goddess that crowns it was turned towards the sea and not towards them. But, thanks be to God, this arena of rebellion and slavery is a scene of violence and crime no longer! This will be forever the sacred mountain of our Capital. Here is our temple; its pavement is the sepulcher of heroic hearts; its dome, the bending heaven; its altar candles, the watching stars.
Hither our children’s children shall come to pay their tribute of grateful homage. For this are we met to-day. By the happy suggestion of a great society, assemblies like this are gathering at this hour in every State in the Union. Thousands of soldiers are to-day turning aside in the march of life to visit the silent encampments of dead comrades who once fought by their side. From many thousand homes, whose light was put out when a soldier fell, there go forth to-day to join these solemn processions loving kindred and friends, from whose heart the shadow of grief will never be lifted till the light of the eternal world dawns upon them. And here are children, little children, to whom the war left no father but the Father above. By the most sacred right, theirs is the chief place to-day. They come with garlands to crown their victor fathers. I will delay the coronation no longer.