Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Memorial Day

Posted by M. C. on May 26, 2023

An Interesting History

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

“Decoration Day” redirects here. For other uses, see Decoration Day (disambiguation) and Memorial Day (disambiguation).

Memorial Day
The gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery are decorated with U.S. flags during Memorial Day weekend of 2008.
Official nameMemorial Day
Observed byAmericans
ObservancesU.S. military personnel who died in service
DateLast Monday in May
2022 dateMay 30
2023 dateMay 29
2024 dateMay 27
2025 dateMay 26
First time1966

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier located in Arlington National Cemetery

Memorial Day (originally known as Decoration Day[1]) is a federal holiday in the United States for honoring and mourning the U.S. military personnel who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.[2] It is observed on the last Monday of May. From 1868 to 1970, it was observed on May 30.[3]

Many people visit cemeteries and memorials on Memorial Day to honor and mourn those who died while serving in the U.S. military. Many volunteers place American flags on the graves of military personnel in national cemeteries. Memorial Day is also considered the unofficial beginning of summer in the United States.[4]

The first national observance of Memorial Day occurred on May 30, 1868.[5] Then known as Decoration Day, the holiday was proclaimed by Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic to honor the Union soldiers who had died in the Civil War.[6] This national observance was preceded by many local ones between the end of the Civil War and Logan’s declaration. Many cities and people have claimed to be the first to observe it. However, in 2022, the National Cemetery Administration, a division of the Department of Veterans Affairs, credited Mary Ann Williams with originating the “idea of strewing the graves of Civil War soldiers—Union and Confederate” with flowers.[7]

Official recognition as a holiday spread among the states, beginning with New York in 1873.[8] By 1890, every Union state had adopted it. The world wars turned it into a day of remembrance for all members of the U.S. military who fought and died in service. In 1971, Congress standardized the holiday as “Memorial Day” and changed its observance to the last Monday in May.

Two other days celebrate those who have served or are serving in the U.S. military: Armed Forces Day (which is earlier in May), an unofficial U.S. holiday for honoring those currently serving in the armed forces, and Veterans Day (on November 11), which honors all those who have served in the United States Armed Forces.[9]

Claimed origins[edit]

1870 Decoration Day parade in St. Paul, Minnesota

A variety of cities and people have claimed origination of Memorial Day.[5][10][11][12] In some such cases, the claims relate to documented events, occurring before or after the Civil War. Others may stem from general traditions of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers, rather than specific events leading to the national proclamation.[13] Soldiers’ graves were decorated in the U.S. before[14] and during the American Civil War. Other claims may be less respectable, appearing to some researchers as taking credit without evidence, while erasing better-evidenced events or connections.[8][15]

Precedents in the South[edit]

Charleston, South Carolina[edit]

Of documented commemorations occurring after the end of the Civil War and with the same purpose as Logan’s proclamation, the earliest occurred in Charleston, South Carolina. On May 1, 1865, formerly enslaved Black adults and children held a parade of 10,000 people to honor 257 dead Union soldiers. Those soldiers had been buried in a mass grave at the Washington Race Course, having died at the Confederate prison camp located there. After the city fell, recently freed persons unearthed and properly buried the soldiers. Then, on May 1, they held a parade and placed flowers. The estimate of 10,000 people comes from contemporaneous reporting, more recently unearthed by Historian David W. Blight, following references in archived material from Union veterans where the events were also described. Blight cites articles in the Charleston Daily Courier and the New-York Tribune.[16]

No direct link has been established between this event and Logan’s 1868 proclamations. Although Blight has claimed that “African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina”,[17] in 2012, he stated that he “has no evidence” that the event in Charleston effectively led to General Logan’s call for the national holiday.[18][15]

85th Anniversary of Memorial Day


On June 3, 1861, Warrenton, Virginia, was the location of the first Civil War soldier’s grave ever to be decorated, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper article in 1906.[19] This decoration was for the funeral of the first soldier killed in action during the Civil War, John Quincy Marr, who fought and died on June 1, 1861, during a skirmish at Battle of Fairfax Courthouse in Virginia.[20]

1867 Decoration Day in Richmond, Virginia‘s Hollywood Cemetery

Jackson, Mississippi[edit]

On April 26, 1865, in Jackson, MississippiSue Landon Vaughan supposedly decorated the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers. However, the earliest recorded reference to this event did not appear until many years after.[21] Regardless, mention of the observance is inscribed on the southeast panel of the Confederate Monument in Jackson, erected in 1891.[22]

Columbus, Georgia[edit]

The United States National Park Service[23] and numerous scholars attribute the beginning of a Memorial Day practice in the South to a group of women of Columbus, Georgia.[21][24][25][26][27][28][29] The women were the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus. They were represented by Mary Ann Williams (Mrs. Charles J. Williams) who, as Secretary, wrote a letter to press in March 1866 asking their assistance in establishing annual holiday to decorate the graves of soldiers throughout the south.[30] The letter was reprinted in several southern states and the plans were noted in newspapers in the north. The date of April 26 was chosen. The holiday was observed in Atlanta, Augusta, Macon, Columbus and elsewhere in Georgia as well as Montgomery, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; Louisville, Kentucky; New Orleans, Louisiana; Jackson, Mississippi, and across the south.[21] In some cities, mostly in Virginia, other dates in May and June were observed. General John A. Logan commented on the observances in a speech to veterans on July 4, 1866, in Salem, Illinois.[31] After General Logan’s General Order No. 11 to the Grand Army of the Republic to observe May 30, 1868, the earlier version of the holiday began to be referred to as Confederate Memorial Day.[21]

Columbus, Mississippi[edit]

A year after the war’s end, in April 1866, four women of Columbus gathered together at Friendship Cemetery to decorate the graves of the Confederate soldiers. They also felt moved to honor the Union soldiers buried there, and to note the grief of their families, by decorating their graves as well. The story of their gesture of humanity and reconciliation is held by some writers as the inspiration of the original Memorial Day despite its occurring last among the claimed inspirations.[32][33][34][35]

Other Southern precedents[edit]

According to the United States Library of Congress website, “Southern women decorated the graves of soldiers even before the Civil War’s end. Records show that by 1865, Mississippi, Virginia, and South Carolina all had precedents for Memorial Day.”[36] The earliest Southern Memorial Day celebrations were simple, somber occasions for veterans and their families to honor the dead and tend to local cemeteries.[37] In following years, the Ladies’ Memorial Association and other groups increasingly focused rituals on preserving Confederate culture and the Lost Cause of the Confederacy narrative.[38]

Precedents in the North[edit]

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania[edit]

The 1863 cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, included a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. Some have therefore claimed that President Abraham Lincoln was the founder of Memorial Day.[39] However, Chicago journalist Lloyd Lewis tried to make the case that it was Lincoln’s funeral that spurred the soldiers’ grave decorating that followed.[40]

Boalsburg, Pennsylvania[edit]

On July 4, 1864, ladies decorated soldiers’ graves according to local historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania.[41] Boalsburg promotes itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day.[42] However, no published reference to this event has been found earlier than the printing of the History of the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1904.[43] In a footnote to a story about her brother, Mrs. Sophie (Keller) Hall described how she and Emma Hunter decorated the grave of Emma’s father, Reuben Hunter, and then the graves of all soldiers in the cemetery. The original story did not account for Reuben Hunter’s death occurring two months later on September 19, 1864. It also did not mention Mrs. Elizabeth Myers as one of the original participants. However, a bronze statue of all three women gazing upon Reuben Hunter’s grave now stands near the entrance to the Boalsburg Cemetery. Although July 4, 1864, was a Monday, the town now claims that the original decoration was on one of the Sundays in October 1864.[44]

National Decoration Day[edit]

General John A. Logan, who in 1868 issued a proclamation calling for “Decoration Day”

Orphans placing flags at their fathers’ graves in Glenwood Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Decoration Day

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide; he was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of and for Union Civil War veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois.[45] With his proclamation, Logan adopted the Memorial Day practice that had begun in the Southern states three years earlier.[21][30][46][47][48][49][50] The northern states quickly adopted the holiday. In 1868, memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states, and 336 in 1869.[51]: 99–100  One author claims that the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle.[52] According to a White House address in 2010, the date was chosen as the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom in the North.[53]

Michigan state holiday[edit]

Memorial Day, Boston by Henry Sandham

In 1871, Michigan made Decoration Day an official state holiday and by 1890, every northern state had followed suit. There was no standard program for the ceremonies, but they were typically sponsored by the Women’s Relief Corps, the women’s auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which had 100,000 members. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries, located near major battlefields and thus mainly in the South. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington, D.C.[54]

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