Terry Eiler/Documerica Projec Collection/U.S. National Archives
This photograph was taken in May 1972 at a veterans cemetery in Window Rock, Arizona.

Lest We Forget: A Brief History of Memorial Day

ICTMN Staff
5/27/13

Today, May 27, is Memorial Day, the day we honor and remember our fallen service members. From the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs comes the following brief history of the origins of Memorial Day (read more).

Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

(For a timeline on the origins of Memorial Day, created by the U.S. Army Center of Military History, click here.)

The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. 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.

By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day, and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.

(For a photo gallery of historic photos of Memorial Day observances from the Libray of Congress, click here.)

It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May.

Gen. Logan’s order for his posts to decorate graves in 1868 “with the choicest flowers of springtime” urged: “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. ... Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

(For President Obama's 2013 address "Giving thanks to our fallen heroes this Memorial Day," including video, click here.)

The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that attend today’s observance, about 5,000 people. Then, as now, small American flags were placed on each grave — a tradition followed at many national cemeteries today. In recent years, the custom has grown in many families to decorate the graves of all departed loved ones.

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.”

To ensure the sacrifices of America ’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.

(For text of Obama calling for Memorial Day to be a day of prayer for permanent peace, click here.)

The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. As Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada states: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”

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Tim Knoerle's picture
Tim Knoerle
Submitted by Tim Knoerle on
KNOW YOUR HISTORY: Memorial Day was started by former slaves on May, 1, 1865 in Charleston, SC to honor 257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. They dug up the bodies and worked for 2 weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. They then held a parade of 10,000 people led by 2,800 Black children where they marched, sang and celebrated.

TheTruth's picture
TheTruth
Submitted by TheTruth on
This article is propaganda. The reason they moved Memorial day from May 1st to May 30th was NOT because of blooming flowers it WAS to prevent solidarity between the citizens and soldiers of the USA and the rest of the world.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
Following President Abraham Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, there were a variety of events of commemoration. The first well-known observance of a Memorial Day-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865. During the war, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Charleston Race Course; at least 257 Union prisoners died there and were hastily buried in unmarked graves.[12] Together with teachers and missionaries, black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. The freedmen cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, "Martyrs of the Race Course." Nearly ten thousand people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the war dead. Involved were about 3,000 school children newly enrolled in freedmen's schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, black ministers, and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field. Today the site is used as Hampton Park.[13] Years later, the celebration would come to be called the "First Decoration Day" in the North.

Amy's picture
Amy
Submitted by Amy on
I agree with Tim below, Know your history. memorial day started in 1865, 3 years prior to your "claim". and it started by black slaves, not the head of some Union organization (a white man I presume taking credit).
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