Today is a day set aside to honor those who have given the last full measure of devotion in service to the United States of America. Though it is now observed on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day was originally designated as May 30 and has its origins in the Civil War.
The nation was not prepared for the destruction wrought by civil war and hospitals were quickly overrun whenever a battle was fought. Likewise, existing cemeteries could not handle the overwhelming numbers of dead and the first national cemeteries were established in order to deal with the problem.
In the years following the war it had become increasingly common for towns and cities to hold tribute to the fallen soldiers each spring, laying flowers at their graves and speaking words of homage and respect.
It is unclear exactly where this tradition originated. Though, in May 1966, President Lyndon Johnson officially declared Waterloo, New York to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, it is likely that numerous communities independently initiated memorial gatherings.
What we do know for sure is that on May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization and advocacy group for Northern Civil War veterans, issued General Order No. 11. This order proclaimed that, “The 30th 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, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Logan was calling for a nation-wide day of remembrance, which he dubbed as “Decoration Day.”
General John A. Logan
Logan chose May 30 for the date of Decoration Day because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle, and could therefore serve as a time to honor all those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.
On the first Decoration Day in 1868, memorials were held in a variety of cemeteries ranging from local churchyards to the large national cemeteries established during the war. All told, events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 different states. The largest commemoration effort took place at Arlington National Cemetery where General James Garfield gave a speech, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers interred on the grounds.
Preparing flowers for Decoration Day in 1899
In the years that followed the idea continued to spread, gaining traction when the State of New York officially recognized the day in 1873. This example was soon followed by other states and by 1890 Decoration Day was recognized by all of the northern states.
The Southern states, however, were largely reticent to acknowledge the day, and instead honored their dead in their own way and on separate days.
Even so, the roots of Memorial Day can be found in the south at the same time or even earlier than they arose in northern cities. The first recorded instance of an observance similar to what we now know as Memorial Day occurred just after the war ended in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865.
During the war, at least 257 Union prisoners had died while being held on the grounds of the Charleston Race Course, and had been hastily buried in unmarked graves. Knowing of these internments, freedmen in Charleston, assisted by missionaries, put together a May Day ceremony to honor these men. Nearly ten thousand people, most of them former slaves who had gained their freedom as a result of the war, gathered together to commemorate the fallen. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field. Today the site of this commemoration is known as Hampton Park.
Historian David W. Blight describes the events of the day in this way:
"This was the first Memorial Day...What you have [in Charleston] is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the War had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”
We also know that in 1867 Nella L. Sweet published a hymn called, Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping which carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead,” which suggests that organized women's groups in the South as well as the North were decorating graves in the years immediately following the war.
Following the Great War (World War I) half a century later, the holiday evolved to commemorate all those who had been killed serving in the American military, grew in scale, and was observed by southern as well as northern states.
As time passed the name of the holiday gradually changed from "Decoration Day" to "Memorial Day," a description which is first recorded in 1882. The latter name did not become commonly used, however, until after World War II, and was not declared as the official name until 1967.
For a full century Decoration/Memorial Day was observed on May 30, the date Logan had originally selected for the first Decoration Day in 1868. One hundred years later, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which changed recognition of Memorial Day to the last Monday in May, so that it would always result in a three-day weekend, beginning in 1971. This law also declared Memorial Day to be an official federal holiday. It has been observed in this manner ever since.
The manner in which Americans have celebrated Memorial Day has changed, but the principal idea of decorating graves with flowers continues. Over time the poppy has overtaken all other flowers as the primary floral symbol of Memorial Day, and the tradition has expanded to include the wearing of flowers in addition to placing them at gravesites.
Field of Red Poppies in France near the fields of Flanders
In 1915 Moina Michael, inspired by the poem "In Flanders Fields," wrote these lines:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
In addition to writing these words Moina decided to wear red poppies on Memorial Day to honor the fallen. She soon begin to sell poppy flowers to others as well and used the profits to benefit American servicemen in need. Her devotion and example, coupled with her poem, gave birth to the practice of wearing a poppy in one’s lapels in observance of Memorial Day.
Stars signifying American lives lost in WWII at the National Memorial in Washington, DC
The day has also become a special time to honor the mothers and widows of those who have been lost. These special ladies are known as Gold Star mothers and wives, inspired by the practice of hanging a gold star in the window to symbolize the loss of a loved one in WWI and WWII.
Three Gold Star mothers alongside a park ranger dressed as a Civil War officer at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC in 2010
In the nearly 150 years since its inception Memorial Day has also come to mark the beginning of summer and is often a time of picnicking, barbequing and family vacation. In recent years the focus of the day has shifted toward a celebration of summer and away from honoring the fallen. In an effort to restore the focus to the intention of the holiday, in December, 2000 the "National Moment of Remembrance" resolution was passed to asks all Americans at 3 p.m. local time, “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to Taps.”
So this Memorial Day make sure to pause and reflect upon the sacrifice of so many that has allowed this nation to be a beacon of freedom and liberty for 236 years.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
~President Abraham Lincoln at the Dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg,
November 19, 1863