General John A. Logan
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,
The practice of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers is an ancient custom. Soldiers’ graves were decorated in the U.S. before and during the American Civil War. A claim was made in 1906 that the first Civil War soldier’s grave ever decorated was in Warrenton, Virginia, on June 3, 1861, implying the first Memorial Day occurred there. Though not for Union soldiers, there is authentic documentation that women in Savannah, Georgia, decorated Confederate soldiers’ graves in 1862. In 1863, the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. Local historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claim that ladies there decorated soldiers’ graves on July 4, 1864. As a result, Boalsburg promotes itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day.
Following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, there were a variety of events of commemoration. The sheer number of soldiers of both sides who died in the Civil War, more than 600,000, meant that burial and memorialization took on new cultural significance. Under the leadership of women during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had taken shape. In 1865, the federal government began creating national military cemeteries for the Union war dead.
The first widely publicized 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. 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. Years later, the celebration would come to be called the “First Decoration Day” in the North.
David W. Blight described the day:
This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”
However, Blight stated he “has no evidence” that this event in Charleston inspired the establishment of Memorial Day across the country.
On May 26, 1966, President Johnson signed a presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Earlier, the 89th Congress adopted House Concurrent Resolution 587, which officially recognized that the patriotic tradition of observing Memorial Day began one hundred years prior in Waterloo, New York. According to legend, in the summer of 1865 a local druggist Henry Welles, while talking to friends, suggested that it might be good to remember those soldiers who did not make it home from the Civil War. Not much came of it until he mentioned it to General John B. Murray, a Civil War hero, who gathered support from other surviving veterans. On May 5, 1866, they marched to the three local cemeteries and decorated the graves of fallen soldiers. It is believed that Murray, who knew General Logan, told Logan about the observance and that led to Logan issuing Logan’s Order in 1868 calling for a national observance.
Copying an earlier holiday that had been established in the Southern states, on May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans’ organization for Union Civil War veterans, General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide. It was observed for the first time that year on Saturday May 30; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. According to the White House, the May 30 date was chosen as the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom.
Memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868, and 336 in 1869. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday. Michigan made “Decoration Day” an official state holiday in 1871 and by 1890, every northern state had followed suit. The ceremonies were sponsored by the Women’s Relief Corps, the women’s auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which had 100,000 members. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries, located near major battlefields and thus mainly in the South. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington, D.C.
Memorial Day speeches became an occasion for veterans, politicians, and ministers to commemorate the War and, at first, to rehash the “atrocities” of the enemy. They mixed religion and celebratory nationalism and provided a means for the people to make sense of their history in terms of sacrifice for a better nation. People of all religious beliefs joined together and the point was often made that the German and Irish soldiers had become true Americans in the “baptism of blood” on the battlefield. By the end of the 1870s, much of the war-time rancor was gone, and the speeches usually praised the brave soldiers, both Blue and Gray. By the 1950s, the theme was American exceptionalism and duty to uphold freedom in the world.
Ironton, Ohio, lays claim to the nation’s oldest continuously running Memorial Day parade. Its first parade was held May 5, 1868, and the town has held it every year since; however, the Memorial Day parade in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, predates Ironton’s by one year.
Evidence exists that shows General Logan had adopted and adapted for the North the annual Confederate Memorial Day custom that had been in practice in the South since 1866. The U.S. National Park Service attributes the beginning to the ladies of Columbus, Georgia. The separate tradition of Memorial Day observance which had emerged earlier in the South was linked to the Lost Cause and served as the prototype for the national day of memory. Historians acknowledge the Ladies Memorial Association played a key role in its development. Various dates ranging from April 25 to mid-June were adopted in different Southern states. Across the South, associations were founded, many by women, to establish and care for permanent cemeteries for the Confederate dead, organize commemorative ceremonies, and sponsor appropriate monuments as a permanent way of remembering the Confederate cause and sacrifice. The most important was the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which grew from 17,000 members in 1900 to nearly 100,000 women by World War I. They were “strikingly successful at raising money to build Confederate monuments, lobbying legislatures and Congress for the reburial of Confederate dead, and working to shape the content of history textbooks.”
On April 25, 1866, women in Columbus, Mississippi laid flowers on the graves of both the Union and Confederate dead in the city’s cemetery. The early Confederate Memorial Day celebrations were simple, somber occasions for veterans and their families to honor the dead and tend to local cemeteries. By 1890, there was a shift from the emphasis on honoring specific soldiers to a public commemoration of the lost Confederate cause. Changes in the ceremony’s hymns and speeches reflect an evolution of the ritual into a symbol of cultural renewal and conservatism in the South. By 1913, Blight argues, the theme of American nationalism shared equal time with the Lost Cause.
Soldiers National Monument at the center of Gettysburg National Cemetery.
The ceremonies and Memorial Day address at Gettysburg National Park became nationally well known, starting in 1868. In July 1913, veterans of the United States and Confederate armies gathered in Gettysburg to commemorate the fifty-year anniversary of the Civil War’s bloodiest and most famous battle.
The four-day “Blue-Gray Reunion” featured parades, re-enactments, and speeches from a host of dignitaries, including President Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner elected to the White House after the War. James Heflin of Alabama gave the main address. Heflin was a noted orator; two of his best-known speeches were an endorsement of the Lincoln Memorial and his call to make Mother’s Day a holiday. His choice as Memorial Day speaker was criticized, as he was opposed for his support of segregation; however, his speech was moderate in tone and stressed national unity and goodwill, gaining him praise from newspapers.
Since the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg occurred on November 19, that day (or the closest weekend) has been designated as their own local memorial day that is referred to as Remembrance Day.
Name and date
“On Decoration Day” Political cartoon c 1900. Caption: “You bet I’m goin’ to be a soldier, too, like my Uncle David, when I grow up.”
The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day”, which was first used in 1882. It did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress’ change of date within a few years.
Memorial Day endures as a holiday which most businesses observe because it marks the unofficial beginning of summer. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) advocate returning to the original date, although the significance of the date is tenuous. The VFW stated in a 2002 Memorial Day Address:
Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.
Starting in 1987 Hawaii’s Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran, introduced a measure to return Memorial Day to its traditional date. Inouye continued introducing the resolution until his death in 2012.
On Memorial Day, the flag of the United States is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon. It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day.
Memorial Day observances in small New England towns are often marked by dedications and remarks by veterans, state legislators, and selectmen
The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon, their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.
The National Memorial Day Concert takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol. The concert is broadcast on PBS and NPR. Music is performed, and respect is paid to the men and women who gave their lives for their country.
For many Americans, the central event is attending one of the thousands of parades held on Memorial Day in large and small cities all over the country. Most of these feature marching bands and an overall military theme with the National Guard and other servicemen participating along with veterans and military vehicles from various wars.
One of the longest-standing traditions is the running of the Indianapolis 500, an auto race which has been held in conjunction with Memorial Day since 1911. It runs on the Sunday preceding the Memorial Day holiday. The Coca-Cola 600 stock car race has been held later the same day since 1961. The Memorial Tournament golf event has been held on or close to the Memorial Day weekend since 1976.
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