The History of Memorial Day

Posted by on May 27, 2024 in Stuff You Should Know, United States
Silhouette of American (USA) soldier saluting to USA flag
Silhouette of an American soldier saluting to the U.S. flag.

Memorial Day is an American holiday to honor members of the military who lost their lives during wars or conflicts. Many local communities hold patriotic celebrations that include parades, fireworks, and flag displays. Memorial Day is observed annually on the last Monday of May as a federal holiday. While the holiday honors fallen service members, the day is now also associated with the start of the summer season.  It often marks the opening of community pools, backyard barbeques, and family vacations to beaches.

There are varying accounts of the history behind Memorial Day, including where it started, who enacted the traditions, and where it began.

Birthplace Disputes

From Macon, Georgia to Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, many American cities claim the “birthplace” of Memorial Day title. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson and the U.S. Congress declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace. Supporters of the Waterloo designation site established traditions of closing businesses and lowering flags to half-staff. These traditions continue to occur in Waterloo today.

The “Official” History

In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a federal holiday. However, the roots of Memorial Day, also known as Decoration Day, have been debated by historians. The “official” historical account provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs traces the day back to the U.S. Civil War. Many scholars agree on this point.

In 1868, General John Logan and the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a Union veteran organization, founded Decoration Day. The intention for the day was to unite the nation to decorate graves of fallen Civil War soldiers. The GRA selected May 30th because it was in the heart of spring when many flowers were blooming. The year 1868 also brought about the first large observance at Arlington National Cemetery. Ulysses S. Grant was in attendance, and the ceremony included participants placing flowers on Union and Confederate graves, along with speeches, prayers, and hymns.

African American Contributions

Dr. David Blight, a Yale University historian, credits the creation of Memorial Day to freed African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina.  In May 1865, the group organized an event at a racetrack where Confederate soldiers had held Union troops captive. During the war, many Union soldiers died from mistreatment or disease. They were buried in unmarked mass graves at this location. The newly freed citizens reorganized the graves into rows, erected fences, and built an archway sign that read “Martyrs of the Racecourse” to honor the dead. Approximately 10,000 mostly African American residents came and participated in a parade tribute with songs, sermons, spirituals, and picnics. Later in the afternoon, African American and white Union regiments enacted drills around the memorial site.

The Southern Connection

According to the Library of Congress, Memorial Day was celebrated by southern women before 1868 with a tradition of cleaning graves and placing floral decorations. In 1866, in Columbus, Mississippi, a local women’s association placed flowers on both Union and Confederate graves. This act drew national attention with a feature in the New York Tribune newspaper and a poem titled “The Blue and Gray” by Francis Miles Finch. The poem was published in the Atlantic Monthly news magazine in 1867. Cities such as Richmond, Virginia; Macon, Georgia; and Columbus, Mississippi, all claim early commemorations of honoring the dead.

How Do We Celebrate Today?

After World War I, the holiday was no longer solely associated with the Civil War. In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act to encourage American citizens to honor the fallen and encourage participation in national moments of remembrance. The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause for a moment of silence at 3:00 PM on Memorial Day. Each year, the president places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and small American flags are placed on each grave by local veteran organizations.

Dig Deeper Visit the National Parks Service website to learn more about the memorials that honor military service members who have died in wars or conflicts. Who do the memorial honor? What are the symbols used to memorialize the fallen? Based on this information, how can you honor military service members who have lost their lives or families that have lost their loved ones? You might try designing your own memorial to honor fallen service members.