The Real History of Memorial Day | HistoryNet MENU
U.S. flags stand in front of the graves of fallen service members on Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington Va.

The Real History of Memorial Day

By Rebecca Miller
5/26/2016 • American History Magazine

Memorial Day falls on the last Monday of May. Americans all over the country honor fallen soldiers with parades, barbecues, and commemorative services.

Though Memorial Day was made an official federal holiday in 1971, its roots trace all the way back to the Civil War, when Northerners and Southerners alike needed a way to mourn their fallen soldiers. Most observances were concentrated in the South, where the most Civil War graves were located.

Over 25 cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. For example, Macon, Georgia, claims it began there in 1866, while Boalsburg, PA, maintains it began there in 1864.

One story maintains that, in late April of 1866, a group of Mississippi women went to decorate the graves of soldiers who had died in the Battle of Shiloh. When they arrived, they found the Confederate graves well cared-for, in stark contrast to the nearby graves of Union soldiers, which were bare and unkempt. Saddened, the women placed their flowers on the Union graves, too.

On May 5, 1868, just three years after the Civil War, a group of Union Veterans called the Grand Army of the Republic (the GAR) declared May 30th Decoration Day. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan gave the order for his posts to decorate graves “with the choicest flowers of springtime.”

He wanted to “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 first major organized Decoration Day observation occurred that year on May 30th at Arlington National Cemetery. Ulysses S. Grant presided over the ceremony. After the speeches, children from local orphanages walked through the cemetery with members of the GAR, placing flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers.

Today, several states continue to observe Confederate Memorial Day, in which they honor only Southern soldiers who died during the Civil War. These states are North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Alabama, Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia. Confederate Memorial Day, also known as Confederate Heroes Day (in Texas) and Confederate Decoration Day (Tennessee), is celebrated in conjunction with the national holiday.

Though it occurs on different days in different states, Confederate Memorial Day is generally celebrated with church services and civil war reenactments. Flags and flowers are placed on confederate graves, and civil war relics are displayed.

On a national level, Decoration Day was expanded to honor all fallen US soldiers after the end of WW1. In 1971, it became a federal holiday, with an official National Moment of Remembrance. At 3PM local time, every American is encouraged to pause in silence for a minute to reflect on the sacrifice of the soldiers who gave their lives for this country.

We encourage you to do the same. Happy Memorial Day!

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