Memorial DayPosted: May 25, 2015
May 25, 2015, marks the 147th annual observance of Memorial Day in the U.S.—a day when we remember the men and women of all branches of military service, who served our nation in all wars and in peacetime, and are no longer with us.
Memorial Day had its origins in “Decoration Day,” which evolved from earlier, informal customs into a more public tradition during the Civil War. The practice of decorating graves to honor heroes, leaders, or loved ones dates back to ancient times and is found in all cultures around the world. Geographic, ethnic, religious, cultural beliefs, philosophy, and other factors influence differences in grave decorating and commemorative customs.
In the U.S., graveyard decoration/cleaning day was an annual tradition undertaken by families many years before the Civil War began. Its purpose was to honor the departed loved ones by keeping their graves neat and orderly. Families often made a day of it, packing a picnic meal as part of their communion with the dead, as they trimmed the grass, pulled up weeds, filled in sunken areas with dirt, planted flowers, and adorned the grave or headstone with flowers and wreaths. This was done as often as needed. With the massive loss of life that took place during the Civil War, the individual family-level observance transitioned into larger community affairs known as “Decoration Day.” The earliest documented accounts of Decoration Day were in the American South.
Before the American Civil War there was no such thing as a national cemetery in the U.S. Soldiers, sailors, and marines who died while serving in the U.S. military were buried in a variety of places: at sea, at military fort cemeteries, at the location of their death, or in family, church, private, community, or other cemeteries. The Civil War was a fight, above all else, to preserve the United States as one united nation and Congress wanted to recognize those who chose to fight on the side of keeping it intact. On July 17, 1862, Congress authorized the first national cemeteries, creating federal burial grounds devoted to honoring the patriots willing to sacrifice their lives to preserve America as a united nation—men of the Union forces.
After the Civil War ended, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization founded by and comprised entirely of Union veterans, adopted the custom of decorating graves of their fallen comrades and soon spearheaded a movement to establish a national day of remembrance for them. GAR Commander-in-Chief, General John A. Logan, issued the first Memorial Day order, known as General Order No. 11, on May 5, 1868, to all GAR chapters calling upon them to “gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds. . .with choicest flowers of springtime. . . and in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude.” General Logan expressed his hope that “Memorial Day” would become an annual observance.
General Logan must have been proud to see his efforts realized as he attended the first Memorial Day service at Arlington National Cemetery held on Saturday, May 30, 1868. He was there with Generals Grant, Hancock, Eakin, Howard, and Grimes. General James Garfield, of Ohio, gave the Memorial Day address that day. General Logan died twenty-two years later, in 1886, just two years prior to Memorial Day becoming an official federal holiday, by law, in 1888. Logan was buried at the National Soldiers Home (now U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home) National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
National cemeteries were the first federal public spaces created for veterans and the country’s citizens to gather together to honor those who died to preserve the American way of life. National cemeteries and “Memorial Day” have been inextricably linked together as part of American culture for nearly 150 years. Since 1862 eligibility for burial in national cemeteries has expanded to include women veterans and others deemed deserving by Congress. National cemeteries, with their white marble headstones aligned in perpetual salute, beautiful vistas, and magnificent monuments are the nation’s most visible and revered landscapes for showing the cost of war as well as being silent repositories of American’s history. All but two of America’s national cemeteries were transferred to the VA in 1973.
Memorial Day was held on May 30th for 100 years, until 1968, when Public Law 90-363 changed observance dates for several federal holidays. Since then Memorial Day has been observed on the last Monday of every May.
Preparing flowers for Decoration Day, May 30, 1899
Photos: top – General John A. Logan, 1863 c., Library of Congress; bottom, left – getting flowers ready for Decoration Day, May 30, 1899, Library of Congress; others are VA images.
Story: VA Historian