By Rachel Dove
Memorial Day is much more than a three-day weekend, or the holiday that marks the beginning of summer. When researched, it is a very special day set aside to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for all of us - their lives.
Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans - the Grand Army of the Republic - established “Decoration Day” as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion. Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.
Local observances claiming to be the first local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead had already been held in various places. One of the first occurred in Columbus, Miss., on April 25, 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves, as well.
Today, cities in the North and South claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1866. Both Macon and Columbus, Ga., claim the title, as well as Richmond, Va. The village of Boalsburg, Pa., claims it began there two years earlier. A stone in a Carbondale, Ill., cemetery carries the inscription that the first Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866. Carbondale was Logan’s wartime home. Approximately 25 places have been named in connection with the origin of Memorial Day, many of them in the South, where most of the war dead were buried.
The official birthplace was declared in 1966. Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. There, a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff. Supporters of Waterloo’s claim say earlier observances in other places were either informal, not community-wide or one-time events.
By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures adopted proclamations designating the day, and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.
It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.
Some states have Confederate observances, and many Southern states also have their own days for honoring the Confederate dead. Mississippi celebrates Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday of April, Alabama on the fourth Monday of April, and Georgia on April 26. North and South Carolina observe it on May 10, Louisiana on June 3 and Tennessee calls that date “Confederate Decoration Day.” Texas celebrates “Confederate Heroes Day” on Jan. 19 and Virginia calls the last Monday in May “Confederate Memorial Day.”
To ensure that the sacrifices of America’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity,” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.
The National “Moment of Remembrance” encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.
As Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada said, “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”