The History of Memorial Day

May 25, 2015

Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. It is observed on the last Monday of May and was originally known as Decoration Day which originated in the years following the Civil War which ended in 1865. A history professor from Yale University holds that the first commemoration was held at the race track in Charleston, South Carolina by liberated slaves in 1865.

Grand Army of the Republic veterans at the annual Memorial Day Parade in New York City, May 1922.

Over two dozen cities and towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. Memorial Day was born out of the Civil War and a desire to honor our dead, regardless of the exact date or location. It unofficially marks the start of the summer vacation season, while Labor Day marks its end. Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries.

May 30, 1912: The Memorial Day parade included many local posts of the Grand Army of the Republic organization. About 700 Civil War veterans marched in the parade. This photo was published in the May 31, 1912, Los Angeles Times.

Civil War Musicians in a Memorial Day parade in Los Angeles, ca.1915(below)


Image Source:

On May 5, 1862, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated 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 proclaimed. The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.

General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery on the first Decoration Day and over 5000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. In 1873, New York became the first state to officially recognize the holiday and by 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war).

It is now observed in almost every state on the last Monday in May with Congressional passage of the National Holiday Act of 1971. This helped ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays, though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19th in Texas; April 26th in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10th in South Carolina; and June 3rd (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.

Sources: Wikipedia:; Memorial Day:,, Time:,8599,1900454,00.html

National Memorial Day Parade –  Medical Corps Rememberance – 


Arlington National Cemetary


Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery

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