Three years after the end of the Civil War, on May 5, 1868, Major General John A. Logan, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. “Let us at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flower of Spring time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor” and pledge to assist their widows and orphans. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared it should be May 30. It is believed the date was chosen because it was a time when flowers would be in bloom both in North and South.
The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, where Ohio Rep. James A Garfield, a former general and future U.S. president, addressed a crowd of 5,000. The ceremonies centered around the mourning- draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.
The 1868 celebration was inspired by local observances that had taken place in various locations in the three years since the end of the Civil War. In 1966, the federal government, under the direction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. They chose Waterloo—which had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866—because the town had made Memorial Day an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day, and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities. It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.
The accounts of the first Decoration Days poignantly detail the presence of war orphans in the ceremonies and speak of the “mounds” at the cemeteries, reminding us that the graves were fresh. It is inevitable that pain and memories erode for those not directly touched, and so, as early as 1869, the New York Times was asking, “What is the lesson to be at the outset regarding its future celebrations? It surely is to keep ever in mind the original purpose of the day, as signified by its very name.”
As the first long weekend of the summer, Memorial Day is traditionally filled with barbecues and outdoor activities – but it is first and foremost a very somber holiday intended to pay tribute to service members who have died in military service to the nation.
Memorial Day can be a difficult day for both veterans and those still actively serving. From Lt. Col. (Ret.) Mark Leslie:
"For me, Memorial Day is a day filled with mixed emotions. I am not overly sensitive, but it upsets me when someone innocently says “Happy Memorial Day,” or thanks me for my service. This day is not about me, or anyone else that served or is currently wearing the uniform. This day is to honor those that have perished in the service of our nation - those that have made the ultimate sacrifice; those that are no longer with us; those we were privileged to know. They are not faceless, they are our friends, and fathers, mothers, sons and daughters — and we miss them."
Ways to Honor the Fallen on Memorial Day 2022
1. Take a Walk Through Your Local Veterans Cemetery. Most states have national veterans cemeteries where you can pay a visit and honor the fallen.
2. Participate in a Memorial Day Walk or Running Race. There are many annual Memorial Day weekend running races from 5Ks to marathons.
3. Watch the National Memorial Day Parade. Hosted by the American Veterans Center, the National Memorial Day Parade takes place on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. and is aired on all major broadcast networks.
4. Learn about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Arguably Arlington National Cemetery’s most iconic memorial, the white stone sarcophagus is guarded 365 days a year, 24 hours a day and honors the unidentified soldiers who have given the ultimate sacrifice.
5. Learn About Gold Star Families. The designation “Gold Star Family” is reserved for families of military members who have died in the line of duty. This title is meant to honor the service member’s ultimate sacrifice while acknowledging their family’s loss, grief and continued healing.
6. Investigate Your Family’s Military History. When was the last time you asked family members about their connection to the U.S. military? Spend a few moments this weekend talking to relatives about family members that have served in the military.
7. Watch a Movie About the U.S. Military. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of movies about life in the U.S. military. From movies about World War II to memoirs of Vietnam, spend some time watching a film that pays tribute to the service men and women who have sacrificed for the nation.