History of Memorial Day
By Steve Paul Johnson, May 11, 2004
By the end of the Civil War, Americans came to realize the most
devastating event in the history of the United States. It is estimated
some 620,000 Americans were killed. Nearly everyone in the country
had known someone that was killed during the war. While the Union
side came to be known as the victor, both sides came away feeling
Memorial Day was originally conceived as a day to memorialize
the solidiers who lost their lives in the Civil War. It was first
called "Decoration Day", in reference the decorations
that were laid on tombstones, and hung from buildings.
The first time Decoration Day was first started is not exactly
known. Officially, the date is known as May 30, 1868. However,
the practice of memorializing Civil War dead, and decorating their
graves goes back earlier.
The earliest known evidence of such observance goes back to various
women's auxillary groups in the North and South, when ladies organized
events to honor their war dead by decorating graves. The earliest
recorded event took place on April 25, 1866 in Columbus, Mississippi
when a group of women formed an association to decorate the graves
of civil war soldiers, starting with those who died in the Battle
The towns of Macon, Georgia, Columbus, Georgia, and Richmond,
Virginia all claim to be the birthplace of Decoration Day, having
first celebrated it in 1866. The town of Boalsburg, Pennsylvania
claims to have celebrated the first Decoration Day in 1868. Carbondale,
Illinois claims to have celebrated it first on April 29, 1866.
In all, some 25 cities claim to be the birthplace of Decoration
Day, most of them in the South.
To settle the dispute, President Lyndon Johnson issued a proclaimation
in 1966 naming Waterloo, New York to be the official birthplace
of Memorial Day.
The origins of Waterloo being the birthplace of Memorial day
goes back to Henry C. Welles, a town druggist, who apparently
conceived the idea in the summer of 1865 by mentioning it to a
friend. Sometime later, he mentioned it again to General John
B. Murray, a civil war hero, and plans were finally put in place
to organize an event, which was held on May 5, 1866. A similar
event was held again a year later on May 5, 1867.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, the first commander of
the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed May 30, 1868 as the
official day for decorating the graves of civil war dead. The
town of Waterloo, New York, as well as several other towns joined
together to celebrate the first official Decoration Day on that
date. Interestingly, Logan was the guest speaker at the decoration
event that took place on April 29, 1866, in Carbondale, Illinois.
It appears that experience led to his proclaimation.
Why Logan chose May 30th as the official day is also interesting,
since the prior Decoration days in Waterloo were held on May 5,
and the earlier Decoration event in Carbondale was on April 29.
A possible explanation to this goes back to a french emigrant
woman named Cassandra Oliver Moncure, who in 1866 organized a
Decoration event in Virginia and picked May 30th. She explained
that May 30th is the "Day of Ashes" when Napoleon's
ashes were returned to France from St. Helena.
By the end of the 19th Century, cities all over the country were
celebrating Decoration Day on May 30.
In 1971, Congress and the President passed a law that officially
coined the name, "Memorial Day" and officially marked
the last Monday in May as the official day. Many of the Southern
States, however, have adopted their own dates:
- Mississippi celebrates "Confederate Memorial Day"
on the last Monday in April.
- Alabama celebrates "Confederate Memorial Day" on
the fourth Monday of April
- Georgia celebrates "Confederate Memorial Day" on
- North and South Carolina celebrates "Confederate Memorial
Day" on May 10.
- Louisiana celebrates "Confederate Memorial Day"
on June 3.
- Tennessee celebrates "Confederate Decoration Day"
on June 3.
- Texas celebrates "Confederate Heroes Day" on January
- Virginia celebrates "Confederate Memorial Day" on
the last Monday in May.
On December 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance
Act, which created a new commission, the "White
House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance".
It's goal is to "promote the values of Memorial Day by acts
of remembrance throughout the year and to encourage Americans
to demonstrate their gratitude by giving back to our Nation".
- Steve Paul Johnson