History of Memorial Day: A Surprise?

Prior to this day, I have never considered the history of Memorial Day which I was surprised to learn has its roots in the Civil War.  Thank you, Oklahoma Sun for pointing me in the right direction.

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On May 5, 1868, Major General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization made up of Union Veterans) set aside May 30th as Decoration Day to commemorate fallen soldiers by adorning their graves with flowers. General Logan’s order declared: “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.”

That year, 5,000 gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to attend commemoration ceremonies presided over by General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant. This was the nation’s first major tribute to those who fell in the Civil War, and at that time small American flags were placed on each grave (a tradition that continues today).

However, the decoration of graves actually began before General Logan’s official order, and some two dozen locations claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day observance. The majority of these sites are in the South, where most of the casualties of the Civil War are buried.

For example, both Macon and Columbus, Georgia, as well as Richmond, Virginia, each claim to have begun Memorial Day in 1866; and Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claims that it held the first observance in 1864. However, one of the first documented sites to hold a tribute to the Civil War dead took place in Columbus, Mississippi on April 25, 1866. A group of women who were placing flowers on the graves of Confederate soldiers (casualties of the battle at Shiloh) noticed the destitute graves of the Union soldiers and also decorated their graves with flowers. The first community-wide observance occurred in Waterloo, New York, on May 5, 1866, with a ceremony to honor local Civil War veterans. (A century later in 1966, President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Congress declared Waterloo to be the “birthplace” of Memorial Day because of that earlier observance.)

By the end of the 19th century, the observance of May 30th as a day to honor the Civil War dead had become a widespread practice across the nation, but after World War I, the tribute was expanded to include all American military men and women who had died in any war. Memorial Day has been acknowledged as a national holiday since 1971, when an Act of Congress established its observance on the last Monday in May.

In 2000, Congress passed the “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” asking all Americans to pause at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence in remembrance of all those who have died in military service to America. (Information may be found here. . . .)

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