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.
Where Did Memorial Day come from?
Over 25 cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. For example, Macon, Georgia, claims it began there in 1866, while Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, maintains it began there in 1864.
One story maintains that, in late April 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 declared May 30 to be Decoration Day. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan gave the order for his posts to decorate graves “with the choicest flowers of springtime.”
“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,” he said.
The first major organized Decoration Day observation occurred that year on May 30 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.
GET HISTORY’S GREATEST TALES—RIGHT IN YOUR INBOX
Subscribe to our HistoryNet Now! newsletter for the best of the past, delivered every Monday and Thursday.
Confederate Memorial Day
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.
How Decoration Day became memorial day
On a national level, Decoration Day was expanded to honor all fallen U.S. soldiers after the end of World War I. In 1971, it became a federal holiday, with an official National Moment of Remembrance. At 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day (the last Monday in May), 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!
Our 9 best-selling history titles feature in-depth storytelling and iconic imagery to engage and inform on the people, the wars, and the events that shaped America and the world.