Origin and History of Memorial Day
It is unknown where the first Memorial Day
occurred (almost 25 different towns claim to have originated the
holiday). This was complicated even further when President Lyndon
Johnson publicly declared Waterloo, New York to be the official
birthplace of Memorial Day. This hotly disputed, however, all agree
that it originated at about the time of the end of the Civil War (which
ended in 1865). At the end of the war, and after it ended, widowers,
children and family members of the deceased would honor and remember the
fallen solders (northern and southern) by decorating the graves of the
departed. The day became known as Decoration Day and continued to be
celebrated in communities throughout the United States and was the
beginnings of a day to remember the fallen solders. [Evidence of this
first Memorial Day tradition can be found in sheet music published in
1867 for the song “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Bella L.
Sweet. The sheet contains a dedication “To The Ladies of the South who
are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”]
In May of 1868, former Civil War hero,
General John Alexander Logan, in his new capacity as Commander-in-Chief
of the Grand Army of the Republic (a social and political group
comprised mostly of former veterans) proclaimed a General Order (see
text below) that May 30th was to celebrated as Memorial Day
to remember the Union and Confederate soldiers who have died during the
civil war. This was the first “official” recognition of such a holiday.
May 30th may have been selected because flowers would be
blooming all around the country in order to pick and place on the
soldier’s graves. A large celebration was conducted that year at the
Arlington National Cemetery and flowers were placed on the graves of the
northern and southern soldiers. Another reason May 30th may
have been chosen was due to the influence of French born Cassandra
Oliver Moncure, the leader of the Virginia Women’s Auxillary, who
spearheaded many “Decoration Day” activities. She would have the
Auxillary celebrate that day on May 30th because it coincided
with the Day of Ashes in France (commemorating the return of Napoleon
Bonaparte’s bones to Paris).
General Order No. 11
Headquarters, Grand Army of the Republic
Washington, D.C., May 5, 1868
I. The 30th day of
May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or
otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their
country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost
every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this
observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades
will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of
respect as circumstances may permit.
We are organized,
comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose, among other
things, "of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal
feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines
who united to suppress the late rebellion." What can aid more to assure
this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead,
who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foe?
Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains,
and their death a tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard
their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and
taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a
fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot
tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the
coming and going of reverent visitors and found mourners. Let no
vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the
present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a
people, the cost of free and undivided republic.
If other eyes grow
dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust,
ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain
Let us, then, at the
time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the
passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let
us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us
in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom
they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation's
gratitude,--the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.
II. It is the purpose
of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope it
will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains
to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the
public press to call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid
in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in
time for simultaneous compliance therewith.
commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.
By command of:
JOHN A. LOGAN,
N. P. CHIPMAN,
Little by little, the holiday began to
spread and in 1873, New York became the first state to hold an official
Memorial Day and was recognized by all the former Union (northern)
states within the next fifteen years. The former Confederate (southern)
states began to celebrate their own fallen soldiers on separate dates on
what has been known as
Confederate Memorial Days (each state has
its own date). Some of these states now celebrate a national Memorial
Day, and a separate day for fallen Confederate soldiers.
Because of continuous military
entanglements between the United States and other countries, this day of
remembrance for the Civil War deceased began to expand as casualties of
other wars and conflicts began to take place. After World War I, most
of the country began to celebrate May 30th as a national
Memorial Day. This holiday was officially made a national observance in
1971, when President Richard Nixon signed the National Holiday Act of
1971, which established the last Monday in May to be Memorial Day.
Dates of Memorial Day
2005: May 30
2006: May 29
2007: May 28
2008: May 26
2009: May 25
2010: May 31
Note: In 1999, A bill was discussed in
Congress (S. 189 and H.R. 1474) to change the date of Memorial Day back
to May 30th. The supporters of the bill argue that by making
Memorial Day the end of a three day weekend, people have forgotten the
true meaning of the holiday, and only associate it with a long weekend
to begin the summer. The bills were sent to committee and there has
been no recent activity for this proposal.
Customs and Traditions
The original custom of placing flowers on
the graves of deceased solders continues today with thousands of
families visiting the graves of lost loved ones and placing flowers.
American flags are also placed on their graves as well.
A custom of wearing red poppy flowers began
in 1915, when Moina Michael, inspired by a poem, began selling poppies
and then donating the money to needy servicemen and veterans [note: she
was honored with her face on a postage stamp in 1948]. This custom began
to grow, and a few years later (1920), a traveling French woman named
Madam Guerin heard of the idea, and began to do the same in France and
Belgium to help women and children suffering due to the loss of their
fathers and husbands on the front lines. This eventually led to the
creation of the Franco-American Children’s League. Two years later,
(1922), the organization disbanded and Guerin asked the Veterans of
Foreign Wars (VFW) to help out. The VFW agreed and began to sell poppies
in Europe and the United States.
Another more recent custom is observing a
moment of silence at 3 PM on Memorial Day to remember the lives that
were lost by all the men and women of the armed services in defense of
our country and the freedoms we hold so dear. This custom has been
supported by Congress and the President through the 2000 National
Monument Remembrance Act.
Many towns and cities hold Memorial Day
parades. In fact, Washington D.C. has recently begun to hold a parade
after almost six centuries since the previous one.
At Arlington National Cemetery, an American
Flag is placed on the grave of each of the over 260,000 soldiers buried
there and a wreath is placed at the grave of the Unknown Solder. This
custom has also been carried out in other military cemeteries and
graveyards around the country by local groups and the Boys and Girl
Scouts of America.