Memorial Day History

Memorial Day History

Memorial Day is a federal holiday observed each year to commemorate American servicemen and women who died in battle. It was established by General John Logan, the head of the organization Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), in his General Order No. 11. Logan designated Memorial Day (then called Decoration Day) for decorating and caring for the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers. It is speculated that he choose to observe Memorial Day at the end of May because flowers are in bloom all over the country.

In his order Logan wrote, "The 30th day 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 (Civil War), and whose bodies now lie in almost ever city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit."

Three years after the close of the Civil War, the first official Memorial Day was held on May 30, as Logan specified, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, Congressman James A. Garfield and other officials delivered speeches from the veranda of the Arlington mansion, the former home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Later, members of GAR and children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home placed flowers on the graves of all the Union and Confederate soldiers while praying and singing hymns. Arlington National Cemetery still holds annual Memorial Day ceremonies attracting approximately 5,000 people each year.

Following World War I, the Memorial Day commemoration was expanded to honor American servicemen in all branches of the military, killed in any war or battle. Generally the public has expanded the meaning of Memorial Day to include servicemen not killed in battle and any and all loved ones who have passed on.

For more than 100 years, Memorial Day was observed on May 30, the date originally chosen by Logan. When Congress passed the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90-363), the date of Memorial Day changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May. The change was made to allow federal employees a three-day weekend, but some argue that the three-day weekend distracted people from the true meaning of the occasion. Bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and many sign petitions to help restore the traditional day of observance for Memorial Day.

Patriotic Ways to Observe Memorial Day Memorial Day has become a time to go swimming in newly opened pools, have barbeques and picnics and enjoy a day off work with friends and family. It is important to remember the true meaning of Memorial Day, honoring the memory of lives lost in preserving our freedom. Take some time this Memorial Day to visit a cemetery or memorial, fly the American flag or partake in a moment of silence.

  • Fly the American flag at half-staff until noon
  • Display the POW/MIA flag
  • Visit cemeteries and memorials and place flowers or stick flags on the graves of soldiers
  • Participate in a "National Moment of Remembrance" at 3:00 p.m.
  • Visit a local veteran’s hospital or make a donation to a veteran’s organization
  • Participate in local patriotic events like parades
  • Attend church services
  • Send care packages or letters to soldiers overseas

Confederate Memorial Day Southern states celebrate a Confederate Memorial Day in combination with the national Memorial Day. Since Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday, states observe it on different days. Regardless of the date chosen, all the states honor the Confederate servicemen who died in the Civil War by decorating graves, performing reenactments and many other events. The southern states observe Confederate Memorial Day on the following dates:

State Date Importance
Texas January 19 Birthday of Gen. Robert E. Lee
Alabama Last Monday in April Surrender of Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnson to Union Gen. William Sherman
Florida, Georgia, Mississippi April 26 Surrender of Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnson to Union Gen. William Sherman
South Carolina, North Carolina May 10 Death of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson & the capture of Confederate president Jefferson Davis
Virginia Last Monday in May Same day as Memorial Day
Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana June 3 Birthday of Jefferson Davis

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References Memorial Day History United States Department of Veterans Affairs