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The History of Memorial Day

By Steve Johnson

history of memorial day

By the end of the Civil War, Americans came to realize the most devastating event in the history of the United States. It is estimated some 620,000 Americans were killed. Nearly everyone in the country had known someone that was killed during the war. While the Union side came to be known as the victor, both sides came away feeling devastated.

Memorial Day was originally conceived as a day to memorialize the solidiers who lost their lives in the Civil War. It was first called "Decoration Day", in reference to the decorations that were laid on tombstones, and hung from buildings.

The first time Decoration Day was celebrated is not exactly known. Officially, the date is known as May 30, 1868. However, the practice of memorializing Civil War dead, and decorating their graves goes back earlier.

The earliest known evidence of such observance goes back to various women's auxillary groups in the North and South, when ladies organized events to honor their war dead by decorating graves. The earliest recorded event took place on April 25, 1866 in Columbus, Mississippi when a group of women formed an association to decorate the graves of civil war soldiers, starting with those who died in the Battle of Shiloh.

The towns of Macon, GA, Columbus, GA, and Richmond, VA all claim to be the birthplace of Decoration Day, having first celebrated it in 1866. The town of Boalsburg, PA claims to have celebrated the first Decoration Day in 1868. Carbondale, IL claims to have celebrated it first on April 29, 1866. In all, some 25 cities claim to be the birthplace of Decoration Day, most of them in the South.

To settle the dispute, President Lyndon Johnson issued a proclaimation in 1966 naming Waterloo, NY to be the official birthplace of Memorial Day.

The origins of Waterloo being the birthplace of Memorial day goes back to Henry C. Welles, a town druggist, who apparently conceived the idea in the summer of 1865 by mentioning it to a friend. Sometime later, he mentioned it again to General John B. Murray, a civil war hero, and plans were finally put in place to organize an event, which was held on May 5, 1866. A similar event was held again a year later on May 5, 1867.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, the first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed May 30, 1868 as the official day for decorating the graves of civil war dead. The town of Waterloo, NY, as well as several other towns joined together to celebrate the first official Decoration Day on that date. Interestingly, Logan was the guest speaker at the decoration event that took place on April 29, 1866, in Carbondale, IL. It appears that experience led to his proclaimation.

Why Logan chose May 30th as the official day is also interesting, since the prior Decoration days in Waterloo were held on May 5, and the earlier Decoration event in Carbondale was on April 29. A possible explanation to this goes back to a french emigrant woman named Cassandra Oliver Moncure, who in 1866 organized a Decoration event in Virginia and picked May 30th. She explained that May 30th is the "Day of Ashes" when Napoleon's ashes were returned to France from St. Helena.

By the end of the 19th Century, cities all over the country were celebrating Decoration Day on May 30.

In 1971, Congress and the President passed a law that officially coined the name, "Memorial Day" and officially marked the last Monday in May as the official day. Many of the Southern States, however, have adopted their own dates:

  • Mississippi celebrates "Confederate Memorial Day" on the last Monday in April.
  • Alabama celebrates "Confederate Memorial Day" on the fourth Monday of April
  • Georgia celebrates "Confederate Memorial Day" on April 26.
  • North and South Carolina celebrates "Confederate Memorial Day" on May 10.
  • Louisiana celebrates "Confederate Memorial Day" on June 3.
  • Tennessee celebrates "Confederate Decoration Day" on June 3.
  • Texas celebrates "Confederate Heroes Day" on January 19.
  • Virginia celebrates "Confederate Memorial Day" on the last Monday in May.

On December 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, which created a new commission, the "White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance". It's goal is to "promote the values of Memorial Day by acts of remembrance throughout the year and to encourage Americans to demonstrate their gratitude by giving back to our Nation".

- Steve Paul Johnson

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