Memorial Day holds a special place in the heart of the American people. A federal holiday designated with the intent of remembering those men and women who died while serving their country, it stands as the polar opposite of Veteran’s Day. But, Memorial Day wasn’t originally known by its current name, and we’ve been placing flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers long before it was established. Instead, a lot of the traditions we follow on Memorial Day were adopted from ancient customs predating the United States. The history of Memorial Day is a rich one, filled with rumors, myths, and stories that sought to claim fame to its establishment in the American culture.
Memorial Day was originally established under the name of Decoration Day. It was on May 5th, 1868, when the leader of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization of Union veterans) established Decoration Day in order for the nation to honor the fallen soldiers of the civil war by placing flowers on their graves. Their leader, John Logan, was a Major General of the Army who declared May 30th as the observation date for holiday. Following the declaration, May 30th of 1868 saw the first official observance of the event at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
The celebration of the ceremony began with a speech from General James Garfield. Meanwhile, the orphaned children from the war and members of the Grand Army of the Republic were making their way through the cemetery and placing flowers on the graves of both Confederate and Union fell. During their walk, the children and veterans sang hymns or would recite prayers to honor their fallen relatives/comrades. Additionally, the ceremony was overseen by General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife.
But, what was so important about May 30th? Why choose that particular date to celebrate the passing of their loved ones and fallen friends? It’s claimed by some that the reason for that particular date had to do with flowers being at full bloom during the season. However, another story claims that it was instead chosen because it is a date in which no particular battle happened, hence a day of peace and harmony. Yet, in 2010 a White House address confirmed that it was the best date for flowers to bloom in the northern regions of the United States, finally giving clarity on the issue.
However, another question still lies unanswered. If they originally celebrated Memorial Day during 1868, when was it officially established as a federal holiday?
One interesting fact about military history is that the American people had observed Memorial Day for over a hundred years before it was established as a federal holiday. It wasn’t until the year 1971 that Congress finally instituted Memorial Day as a federal holiday. Moreover, it was May 26th of 1966 when a city in New York called Waterloo was designated by a proclamation straight from President Johnson as the birthplace of the holiday by citing a celebration that was held a hundred years prior to this date.
However, while the designation of Waterloo as the birthplace of Memorial Day is documented by history thanks to the government’s intervention, it’s not necessarily the true location where the tradition began. However, the story of Waterloo is documented as follows:
During the summer of 1865, Henry C. Welles was at a gathering with some friends. Henry spoke to these friends about the idea of remembering the veterans of the Civil War and proposed honoring their memories by placing flowers on their graves. While nothing came out of his proposal, Welles continued pushing the idea until one day he contacted General John Murray, who gave him his support, along with rallying additional help from other veterans. Murray himself was a Civil War hero, and with his help, the plans to create a celebration were put into motion.
Waterloo’s celebration began on May 5th of 1866. That day, the citizens of the village decorated it with flags being flown at half-mast along with black and evergreen drapes; businesses closed down and everyone took time off to pay their respects. The residents of Waterloo marched to numerous of the village’s graveyards. Events were held while they decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers. They repeated these ceremonies for the following years until eventually joining the rest of the communities on observing Decoration Day on the 30th of May.
However, it wasn’t until Governor Rockefeller recognized Waterloo, that the village received recognition from Congress. Eventually, it came to pass that Waterloo became officially recognized as the birthplace of Decoration Day, or as we know it now, Memorial Day. Yet, despite all of this information and folklore, historians believe the birth of Memorial Day at Waterloo is at best unsubstantiated.
As a matter of fact, over 24 locations make the claim of being the true birthplace of Memorial Day in both northern and southern states. The Department of Veteran Affairs attributes these claims to various sources including historians from all over the United States. However, these sources can never agree on the criteria that qualifies it as the birthplace and as such, can at best be considered flimsy authorities on such matters. Historians just don’t seem to have enough information to decipher the true birthplace of the holiday, and it becomes especially difficult as both the North and South have data regarding their traditions of honoring their fallen soldiers.
In fact, the United States National Park Service attributes the birth of Memorial Day to the women in Columbus, Georgia. Members of the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Mississippi would lay flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers of both sides of the war. Those Memorial Day celebrations were often a somber occasion for the friends and families of the fallen to honor their sacrifice. At a minimum, historians do agree on how the Ladies Memorial Association had a large impact on how to conduct the rituals of Memorial Day, however, they never seem to agree on the actual dates adopted for the ceremony. The dates ranged anywhere from late April to the middle of June all across the South, and multiple associations were born in order to give proper care to cemeteries of their fallen soldiers (specifically the Confederate soldiers). The associations would then organize, sponsor, and lead events that would serve to honor the memories of the Confederacy. One such organization, the United Daughters of the Confederacy became the most impactful of the groups, and at its largest reached nearly 100,000 members, their success contributed to numerous buildings and monuments that would honor the Confederacy along with lobbying in the government in order to alter history books.
At the very least, the traditions that began in the South had a large impact on how the holiday would be celebrated in the North. However, none of this still explains how the name changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day, and that change happened gradually across the nation. Memorial Day was originally used in 1882, but it was not adopted right away, it wasn’t until World War II happened that it became the official name in 1967 due to a Federal Law. An Act named the Uniform Monday Holiday Act sought to move four holidays from a specified date to a certain Monday in each of the months in order to facilitate three-day weekends.
In essence, this meant that Memorial Day would no longer be on its original date of May 30th and instead would be celebrated on the last Monday of May. The Law started taking effect in 1971, but due to confusion and bullheadedness from States who refused to accept the date change, it would be a few more years until all the States accepted it. To this day, Memorial Day is a day that most businesses utilize to mark the beginning of summer.
So, what else is there to say about Memorial Day? Well, there are a few groups who are unhappy with the date change of Memorial Day in order to facilitate the three-day weekend. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) made a claim during the 2002 Memorial Day Address which claims that by using the holiday as an excuse for a long weekend, it has created a nation of nonchalant observers of the holiday. In the eyes of the VFW, people these days have forgotten the true reason we observe Memorial Day and simply look to it for extra days off.
Another potential birthplace for Memorial Day is attributed to Charleston, South Carolina due to the actions of former slaves who were honoring the Union soldiers. The story is written in the book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by Professor David Blight. Due to an event in May 1865 that saw a racetrack turned prison become a cemetery after the former slaves reburied the Union soldiers who were found dead at the site and later participated in a ceremony to give their dues to the fallen. The African American people of Charleston buried over 250 soldiers in the location, and there are estimates of over 10,000 people participating in the ceremony.
The freedmen took the former prison turned it into a proper cemetery finally labeling an arch with the words “Martyrs of The Race Course”. After, which on May 1st of 1865, 3000 African American children and 300 African American women marched while distributing clothing and goods among the people. Baskets of flowers, crosses, and wreaths were carried to the grounds, and men marched around the race track towards the cemetery while members of the community both black and white followed their paths.
The history behind Memorial Day is a long an storied tale. Plenty of rumors circulate the origin of this story, but most of them seem apocryphal. Clues exist in the form of plaques, statues, and monuments of the tradition, but at best these only serve to demonstrate that the holiday was celebrated there before it’s first major celebration in the Arlington Cemetery. But, who truly knows the answer? Until irrefutable proof of its beginnings surface, we can only speculate on the matter.
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