The Origins of Memorial Day History: Honor started in the South, Adopted by the Nation, Changed Over the Decades


In recent decades, Memorial Day has become known as the unofficial start of summer.

That’s how we practice it, but in doing so, we lose the true meaning and history of this holiday meant to honor those of our country who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms.

Many communities started a memorial day to honor the dead of the War Between the States. Some cite the first memorial day, designated as Decoration Day, conducted in Kingston, Georgia, in late April 1865 for both Confederate and Union dead while the city was occupied by remnants of Sherman’s army.  It remains as the longest continuous observation.

Others cite May 1, 1865, when liberated former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, decorated the graves of Union soldiers who died as prisoners on Charleston’s famous racecourse, the site of Hampton Park today, as originating the holiday.

Many of the first claims of memorial observations were one-time events. The official birthplace of Memorial Day is Waterloo, New York which is credited as birthplace because it observed the day on May 5, 1866.

Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the premier organization of Union veterans, issued his General Order No. 11 on May 5, 1868, creating Decoration Day.

General Logan, who served in the 31st Illinois, was impressed by the way the South honored their Confederate dead with a special day.  Southern states observe Confederate Memorial Day from late April to early June with the Surrender of the Army of Tennessee (April 26), the death of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (May 10), and President Jefferson Davis birthday (June 3) as most common.

Logan established Decoration Day on May 30 as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. The date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country and it is not the anniversary of a significant battle.

On May 30, 1868, Children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and GAR members placed flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington was the pre-war home of Robert E. Lee and became a cemetery when the Union started burying dead on the property in retaliation for Lee following his state of Virginia out of the Union.

In 1873, surviving Lee family members sued the U.S. Government in hopes of gaining compensation for the seizure of Arlington. The United States Supreme Court ruled in their favor and ordered the government to pay $150,000 for the property.

The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states, while many southern states refused to celebrate due to lingering hostility toward the Union.

After World War I, Decoration Day expanded to commemorate the more recent dead of the Spanish American and World War. Some southern states began to participate, but also retained a separate holiday for their Confederate dead.

In 1915, Moina Michael, inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields,” came up with the idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day. She sold poppies to her friends and co-workers giving the profits to servicemen in need. The tradition was carried to France by Madam Guerin who made artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women from World War I.

In 1921,  Franco-American Children’s League sold poppies to raise funds for war orphans of France and Belgium. In 1922, the Veterans of Foreign Wars took over the cause and became the first veterans’ organization to sell poppies nationally.

In 1922, the Charleston papers reported the first time the “blue, grey, and khaki stood together to pay respects” demonstrating unity and the addition Spanish-American War and World War I to the services.

In 1954, Congress changed the name from Decoration Day to Memorial Day.

Memorial Day was moved by the National Holiday Act of 1968 to the last Monday of May starting in 1971 to give federal employees a three-day weekend. The same act also moved Washington’s Birthday and Veterans’ Day to Monday.

In 1997, taps was played at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day observed on many radio and television stations across the nation as Americans paused to remember the men and women who have lost their lives in service to our country.

In 2000, Congressional and presidential resolutions were signed to observe the new tradition leading to S. 3181, the “National Moment of Remembrance Act” was signed into law in December 2000 codifying the tradition.

Veterans’ Day was restored to November 11 in 1975 effective in 1978. There is a movement to restore Memorial Day every year to May 30. In March 1989 the first bill was introduced in the Senate by the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii) which called for the restoration of the traditional day.

Every new Congress the bill and several companion bills are introduced to the House. Since Sen. Inouye’s passing Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (Hawaii) continues the push tradition. Several patriotic organizations and support the effort.