Memorial Day - Over 150 Years of Remembrance

A bandstand is draped with decorative bunting.
Stereograph shows President Ulysses S. Grant and General John Logan seated at the flag-draped Old Amphitheater, Arlington Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, for Decoration Day ceremonies on May 30, 1873.

Library of Congress

“Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy forget in time that men have died to win them.”

- Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Memorial Day is often considered the unofficial beginning of summer. Parades take place, the grill is dusted off for the first time. Actually, it is more than that. Memorial Day is in remembrance of soldiers who fell in combat risking their lives for their country. It is about gratitude.

So where does the holiday come from?

Although placing flowers on graves is a very old tradition, the modern Memorial Day observance began with the end of the Civil War. In four years of fighting, more than more than 622,000 Americans, from the North and the South, had died. The government established national cemeteries for the Union fallen, while cemeteries were established in cities and towns across the country. With those cemeteries came mourners. They decorated the graves of their fallen heroes with flowers. They recited prayers. They held tributes. It began as a very solemn day.

With the conclusion of the divisive Civil War in 1865, there was a yearning for remembrance of those lostfor healing the wounds of war. A pharmacist in Waterloo Village, New York, Henry C. Welles is credited with the inspiration that “it would be honorable and appropriate to recall the sacrifice of the patriotic dead by displaying floral tributes on the gravestones of the fallen.”

Many towns claim the privelege of being the first one to celebrate Memorial Day. Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, cites October 1864 as the beginning for cemetery decorating in the locale. Carbondale, Illinois, and Petersburg, Virginia, also vie to be first.

Columbus, Mississippi similarly is not to be out done. The town was the site of a hospital and also a burial ground for Union and Confederate soldiers from the Battle of Shiloh. It was on April 25, 1866, that four women decided to honor the Confederate and Union war dead in the local cemetery with flowers. The Columbus, Mississippi, observance received further attention when lawyer Francis Miles Finch learned of the conciliatory gesture and was moved to compose the poem “The Blue and the Gray.” The Atlantic Monthly published it in 1867.

Another Columbus, in Georgia, asserts that the honor of the first Memorial Day should be theirs. It was held in 1866. Authors Richard Gardiner and Daniel Bellware presented their case in an academic study. Furthermore, the New York Times from June 5, 1868, states the following: “The ladies of the South instituted this Memorial Day. They wished to annoy the Yankees, and now the Grand Army of the Republic in retaliation and from no worthier motive, have determined to annoy them by adopting their plan of commemoration.”

However, one of the earliest and perhaps largest ceremonies was held in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865. Dr. David Blight book, Race and Reunion:The Civil War in American Memory. He explains that in May 1865, newly freed African Americans reburied 257 Union soldiers, who had died in a prison camp and were hastily buried, in order to give them the proper honors in death. The new graves were blanketed by flowers and dedicated, with thousands of people parading down the racetrack that had been the site of the prison camp.

Despite these conflicting claims of who was first, the issue has been seemingly settled. Waterloo, New York, is the birthplace of Memorial Day as decreed by the state and federal governments. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller signed a proclamation on March 7, 1966, recognizing the birth of the holiday there. The U.S. Congress agreed when both House and Senate passed House Concurrent Resolution 587 on May 19, 1966. President Lyndon B. Johnson endorsed the designation as he similarly declared the hamlet the birthplace of Memorial Day.

What helped Waterloo’s cause to be first was the consistency of the celebration from year to year in 1866, 1867, and 1868 and thereafter? Other municipalities did not have a tradition of annual celebration or observance where businesses closed as they did in Waterloo. Nevertheless, there still is contention that Waterloo was not first. Some assert that first observance there was actually in 1868 and not 1866.

Today the premier observance takes place in Arlington National Cemetery, where the president lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier followed by an address in the amphitheater. There rites were first held in Arlington on May 30, 1868, four years after burials started at General Robert E. Lee’s former Virginia estate.

One hundred fifty years ago, in anticipation of the 1:00 ceremony, flowers, and wreaths were gathered from the general public, the botanical gardens, the President’s Conservatory, and the Treasury gardens. The floral tributes and attendees all crossed the Potomac River to Arlington via the Long Bridge.

The ceremony was called to order at Arlington House by W.T. Collins, Esq., in the presence of General and Mrs. Grant. The mansion once owned by General Robert E. Lee was draped in mourning. The proclamation issued by General John Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic that established May 30 as the official holiday was read by the master of ceremonies. The invocation was offered by the Reverend Byron Sunderland with a hymn following. Next U.S. Representative and future president James A. Garfield of Ohio delivered solemn, appropriate remarks followed by a patriotic song sung by the audience. Then, to close out the ceremony, a poem was read by the Honorable J.C. Smith, a dirge was played by the 44th United States Infantry band, and a national salute was fired from Arlington House.

With opening ceremonies concluded, a procession was formed that included the Children of Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Asylum and the Committee on Decoration with the public falling in line to decorate grave sites. Once the graves had been festooned with flowers, a final hymn and benediction closed out the new Arlington observance. Hence the tradition began in 1868 of a national celebration in a prominent cemetery.

This holiday has certainly evolved. It became more of a hybrid both before and since 1971. It can be both solemn and joyous, both formal and casual. In 1968, Congress created a three-day weekend encompassing Memorial Day through the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. In the intervening years since the change became effective, Memorial Day has been hailed as the unofficial beginning of the summer season. Inevitably, the holiday weekend has spawned merchandise sales, vacation getaways, and marked by swimming pool openings. Some of the solemnity of the day, in the eyes of some, was lost. Former U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran, saw it that way. In every session of Congress beginning in 1987, until his death in 2012, he introduced bills to move Memorial Day back to May 30.

Congress further left its mark when the holiday was no longer referred to as Decoration Day. Gradually, the “Memorial Day” designation took hold. First used in 1882, it wasn’t common vernacular until after World War II. Still, it wasn’t until 1967 that Congress asserted that “Memorial Day” was the official name of the holiday.

It would be a mistake to think that the eclectic, fun-loving observance of Memorial Day is something new. The holiday sprang from the ashes of the Civil War. When the last veterans died in the 1950s, it was released from its Civil War moorings. The day was once defined as an occasion to mark sacrifice of soldiers in the North to free slaves and preserve the Union. In the South, its rationale was entirely different. So, already in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, there was a bipolarity to the day. One is inclined to recall the dead, but also to celebrate the cause of freedom.

What are appropriate festivities? By itself, a day off from work was celebratory, since there were few national holidays. As early as 1869, the New York Times warned that the original purpose of the day should not be lost. The paper remarked that “joy” was beginning to overtake solemnity. The New York Tribune in 1875 similarly stated that the tradition of Decoration Day was vanishing. Again in 1878, in the same newspaper, the lament was repeated. Historian James McPherson notes the trend continued in the 1880s: "Parades replaced processions. Commemoration gave way to celebration. Instead of doleful songs like 'Strew Blossoms on Their Graves' and 'Cheers or Tears,' veterans and their families sang spirited tunes like 'Rally 'Round the Flag,' 'Marching Through Georgia' and "Dixie.'"

As the 19th century advanced, it was commonplace to close businesses in Northern states. It became accepted to split the day: a visit to the cemetery in the morning was followed by relaxation and diversion in the afternoon.

President Grover Cleveland in 1888 went fishing, which prompted a few scalding headlines and is listed as one of the reasons for his defeat in the bid for a second term. By 1910, the Grand Army of the Republic considered ending Memorial Day to avoid controversy. A year later, the first Indianapolis 500 was held on the day without much of a whisper.

During the 20th century, Memorial Day evolved as a permanent holiday on the calendar. What it entailed changed. It became a remembrance of all service personnel killed in war balanced by leisure, thus changing the attitude and changing conditions have left their mark on Memorial Day.

As religious historian Catherine Albanese observed in 1974, after the Vietnam War there was much debate about the meaning of a soldier’s death and the reason for war. Perceptions of Memorial Day have and will continue to change. In keeping with the spirit of relaxation and leisure, it is estimated that more than 41 million people will treat themselves to a trip of 50 miles or more this Memorial Day weekend.

The serious demeanor and spirit of the holiday extends beyond the last Monday in May. It should be noted that the number of people participating in the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was around 5,000, which is approximately the same number attending today. Recalling that Memorial Day was originally a holiday for Union soldiers, some Southern states still have separate Confederate remembrances. General Logan had originally asked that soldiers who had “united to suppress the late rebellion” be remembered. The South was not largely on board with Memorial Day until after World War I, when remembrances were encompassing all those who died in the countries various conflicts. On December 28, 2000, President Clinton signed the National Moment of Remembrance Act which designated 3:00 PM as a moment of silence in honor of Memorial Day.

So, when did it start…1865, 1866, 1867, 1868, 1968, 1971? Pick your date. What really matters is that we all remember, in our own way, Memorial Day.

Korean War Veterans Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, National Mall and Memorial Parks, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, World War II Memorial

Last updated: June 2, 2019