Origin of Memorial Day
By Michael Ross
May 30, 2023

For some, Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was originally known, is simply a day off, an excuse for a barbeque, swimming, and the kickoff to summer. For those who have lost friends and family members to wars defending our country and those who want to honor the sacrifices that preserve freedom, it has a more serious tone. The American Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War 1, World War 2, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Afghan conflict – down through history Americans have stepped up and served, in many cases giving their lives, to allow us to have those barbeques and celebrations in freedom.

But how did all this get started?  There’s some dispute about who started the first Decoration Day, decorating the graves of soldiers fallen in battle, but tradition says that on May 1, 1865, shortly after the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse that ended the Civil War, formerly enslaved people gathered in Charleston, South Carolina where the war began to honor Union soldiers who died there in a Confederate prison camp. The Union soldiers had been dumped in a mass grave. African Americans decided to honor those who had fought for their freedom by exhuming the bodies and giving them proper individual burial. They labored for two weeks, and then held a parade with ten thousand people, led by over two thousand black children.

There are other claims for the origin of memorial day, and in a strict sense, they are true – in 1868, Major General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order for the decoration of graves, to be observed on May 30 each year. He chose that date for the practical reason that flowers would be in bloom all over the country, and readily available. A large celebration took place at Arlington National Cemetery, which was established in 1864.

Independent of these, a druggist, Henry C. Welles in Waterloo, New York suggested that while it was well and good to remember the living veterans, it would also be fitting to remember those who died defending our country. He persistently brought the idea to the attention of General John B. Murray. Murray started the annual celebration in New York, first on May 5, changing in 1868 to May 30.

In 1966, Governor Rockefeller recognized Waterloo as the birthplace of Memorial Day, also proclaimed by President Lyndon Johnson on May 26 that year.

Yet another claim comes from Columbus, Mississippi, and Bolesburg, Pa. Regardless of the “first” place, Memorial Day has its roots firmly in the American Civil War. This is no surprise, as more men were killed in the Civil War than in World War 1, World War 2, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined – 620,000, with some estimates running as high as 750,000. The Battle of Gettysburg alone killed more men than the Revolutionary War, including Paul Joseph Revere, grandson of the famous Revolutionary rider. Civil War losses were tremendous and felt by almost every family in the country.

In 1971, Congress established Memorial Day as a federal holiday.

Paper Lantern Writers hope you have a great barbeque – but take a moment to pause and thank those who made it possible.

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1 Comment

  1. Anne Beggs

    Thank you for the information, I didn’t know. We spent the wknd in gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy at the cost of so many lives.


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