Memorial Day

by Kimberly Dennin

Early Observances of Memorial Day

S.C. Burial Site via Time

Memorial Day as we know it now has its origins in local observances held in various towns and cities across America. These early celebrations were focused solely on those who died during the Civil War. With 620,000 casualties, known as America’s bloodiest conflict, this war led to the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries; they became places to gather for remembering and honoring those who died. The earliest recorded commemoration was held in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865, just months after the end of the war. This commemoration was organized by freed slaves and the majority of those who attended were Black residents. It was held at a former planters’ racetrack where Union soldiers were held as prisoners during the last year of the war. At least 275 died there, mostly of disease, and were buried in unmarked graves. About 24 Black residents decided to give them a proper burial. They reorganized the graves into rows and built a 10-foot-tall white fence around them. They also built an archway with the words “Martyrs of the Race Course” written on it. About 10,000 people, mostly Black residents, participated in the first tribute which included parades, sermons, song and prayer, and white and Black Union regiments marching around the graves and staging a drill. The next recorded local tribute was held in Columbus, Missouri on April 25, 1866. A group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had died at the battle of Shiloh; they noticed graves of Union soldiers were neglected so flowers were placed there as well.

While these two celebrations are the earliest recorded, many different places, most in the South where the majority of the dead are buried, claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. In 1966, the federal government declared the official birthplace of Memorial Day to be Waterloo, New York, which held its first event on May 5, 1866. This became an annual community event in Waterloo, with businesses closing and graves being decorated with flowers and flags. Waterloo was chosen over other local celebrations due to the more official, community driven nature of their event that was repeated over time.

Waterloo via History

Decoration Day

The first official celebrations of what would become known as Memorial Day occurred on May 30, 1868. General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans called for a nationwide day of remembrance on May 30ththat would be called Decoration Day. He is quoted as saying “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”. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan is also quoted as saying, “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”. There are various reasons given for the date of the celebration being May 30thincludingthat it was not the anniversary of any particular battle and because flowers would be in bloom across the country. The first Decoration Day celebration was held at the Arlington National Cemetery where about 5,000 participants decorated 20,000 graves of Civil War soldiers. The northern states would continue this tradition and by 1890 had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states, however, would continue to honor their dead on separate days that varied between states until after WWI.

Row of Flags via History

Evolution of Decoration Day into Memorial Day

Decoration Day was originally only for honoring those who died during the Civil War, but after WWI it became a day to commemorate those who died in all wars. It continued to be celebrated on May 30th until Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968. This act came into effect in 1971, establishing Memorial Day as the last Monday in May and declaring it a federal holiday. Then, in December 2000 Congress passed “The National Moment of Remembrance Act”. This created the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance and it is written in their charter to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity”. The commission encourages all Americans to pause at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to honor and remember those who have died. Carmella LaSpada, the Moment of Remembrance founder, stated “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day”.


Memorial Day, History

Memorial Day History, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Waxman O.B. (2020) The Overlooked Black History of Memorial Day, Time

Miller R. (2019) The Real History of Memorial Day, Air Force Times