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How Memorial Day became an American tradition

The first Memorial Day was celebrated during the Civil War. It’s since become a sacred day of remembrance.

People gather at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on Memorial Day 1985.
With the Capitol building in the background, people gather around the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington following a Memorial Day ceremony at the memorial on May 27, 1985.
Lana Harris, Associated Press

President Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address (1865), hoped for “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” In the years immediately after the Civil War, that hope was visibly manifested in the magnanimous actions of both Northerners and Southerners who extended an olive branch in mourning the estimated 620,000 men who lost their lives in the conflict.

According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, more than two dozen towns both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line claim to be the first to celebrate Memorial Day, including Columbus, Mississippi; Macon and Columbus, Georgia; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; and Carbondale, Illinois. Congress officially designated Waterloo, New York, as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day without either a hearing nor any historical documentation. Other contenders, however, haven’t been dissuaded.

One of the very first Memorial Day celebrations was on May 1, 1865, when Black workmen gathered at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, South Carolina, which the Confederates had converted into an outdoor prison. Yale University historian David W. Blight tells us these men reinterred the bodies of Union prisoners of war buried there, decorated their graves, built a high fence around the cemetery, “whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance.” Later that day, they “staged a parade of 10,000 on the track. ... The procession was led by 3,000 Black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses. ... Several hundred Black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses.”

People elsewhere as well were already decorating graves of fallen Civil War soldiers in an unofficial way when retired Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, one of the nation’s first veteran support organizations, in effect established Memorial Day as the day Americans pay tribute to the fallen and missing in action.

Logan, in General Orders No. 11, designated May 30, 1868, “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.” He also called for all members of the Grand Army of the Republic around the country to participate, and hoped they would continue the practice as long as veterans from the war were alive to remember their comrades. His inspiration for a Memorial Day (known as Decoration Day in the 1800s) was the local commemorations already being held in the North and the South. In fact, he delivered the keynote address at a Decoration Day commemoration in Carbondale, Illinois, on April 29, 1866, where “Union Army veterans paraded in tattered uniforms and spread flowers on cemetery graves.”

Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first major organized Decoration Day observation on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery, and future President James A. Garfield spoke. Afterward, “children from local orphanages walked through the cemetery with members of the Grand Army of the Republic, placing flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers.” Then, as now, small American flags were placed on each grave — a tradition followed at many national cemeteries today.

In 1873, New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day as a legal holiday. By the late 1800s, many more cities and communities observed Memorial Day, and several states had declared it a legal holiday.

Memorial Day was long known as Decoration Day for the practice of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths and flags. The name “Memorial Day” goes back to 1882, but the older name didn’t disappear until after World War II. It wasn’t until 1967 that federal law declared “Memorial Day” the official name.

Originally, only soldiers who had died in the Civil War were honored. After World War I the scope of the commemoration broadened to include remembrances for the military dead from other wars. The states of the former Confederacy were unenthusiastic about a holiday memorializing those who, in Logan’s words, “united to suppress the late rebellion,” and didn’t adopt the May 30 Memorial Day until after its purpose had been broadened to include those who died in all the country’s wars.

When Logan officially launched the observance, he called for it to be observed on May 30. After Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act (1968), which took effect in 1971, it was moved to the final Monday in May. Several Southern states continue to set aside an additional separate day for honoring Confederate dead.

Today, Memorial Day for many Americans is a time to remember veterans as a whole, not just those who died in uniform as well as departed friends and relatives. While Americans all over the country continue to honor fallen service members with parades and commemorative services, today the holiday also unofficially marks the beginning of summer for many Americans. The three-day weekend is a chance for a beach day, the year’s first sunburn, an opportunity to gather around the grill or lounge by the pool, get together with family and friends, or go on a trip. It is also a chance to watch the Indianapolis 500 race, which first took place on Memorial Day in 1911.

In 1971, the year of the first federally mandated Memorial Day, America was still fighting the Vietnam War and there were anti-war protests across the country. From 1988 to 2019, the veterans advocacy group Rolling Thunder made a tradition of organizing a huge annual motorcycle ride through Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day.

It’s customary for the president or vice president to deliver a speech on Memorial Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Ahead of Memorial Day weekend, the 3rd U.S. Infantry, known as “The Old Guard,” places “small American flags in front of more than 228,000 headstones and at the bottom of about 7,000 niche rows in the cemetery’s Columbarium Courts and Niche Wall. Each flag is inserted into the ground, exactly one boot length from the headstone’s base.”

Let us not forget the real significance of the day, which is so much more than some time off. Let us not forget that Memorial Day is really about sacrifice. At its heart Memorial Day is a day to solemnly honor those who have died for our country and say thank you to current heroes of our armed forces. It is our chance to remember the hundreds of thousands who have made the ultimate sacrifice while serving our country. Their devotion to their country and willingness to make the greatest sacrifice of all is inspirational.

Stephen W. Stathis was a specialist in American history for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress for nearly four decades. He is the author of “Landmark Debates in Congress: From the Declaration of Independence to the War in Iraq,” and “Landmark Legislation: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties.”