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MEMORIAL DAY. Remember and Honor.
May 30 @ 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
The Origins of Memorial Day
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 (GAR) — 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 it should be May 30. It is believed the 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, once the home of Gen. Robert E.
Lee. 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 Claim To Be First
Local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead already had been held in various places.
One of the first occurred in Columbus, Miss., 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 the 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 statement that the first
Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866. Carbondale was the
wartime home of Gen. Logan. 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
Official Birthplace 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 passed 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 also placed on the last Monday
in May, as were some other federal holidays.
Some States Have Confederate Observances
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 January 19 and Virginia
calls the last Monday in May Confederate Memorial Day.
Gen. Logan’s order for his posts to decorate graves in 1868 “with the choicest flowers of
springtime” urged: “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant
paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no
neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we
have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery
was approximately the same size as those that attend today’s observance, about 5,000
people. Then, as now, small American flags were placed on each grave — a tradition
followed at many national cemeteries today. In recent years, the custom has grown in
many families to decorate the graves of all departed loved ones.
The origins of special services to honor those who die in war can be found in antiquity.
The Athenian leader Pericles offered a tribute to the fallen heroes of the Peloponnesian
War over 24 centuries ago that could be applied today to the 1.1 million Americans who
have died in the nation’s wars: “Not only are they commemorated by columns and
inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone
but in the hearts of men.”
To ensure the sacrifices of America’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December
2000, the U.S. 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
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 states: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in
Featured image source: https://wallpaperheart.com/memorial-day-wallpaper-2018/
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