A Brief History of America’s Memorial Day

My wife asked me, “What do you remember doing on Memorial Day when you were a kid?” That question caused me to pause, because I really didn’t remember. I’m pretty sure my dad and mom had my aunts, uncles and cousins over for a Bar-B-Q, but again, we did that a lot.

Ron Current

What I found while researching for this article is that a very large percentage of Americans don’t know the true meaning of Memorial Day. Over time its meaning has been clouded as the first unofficial day of summer, a three-day weekend, firework displays, a day to Bar-B-Q, to attend a baseball game, go on a picnic, go camping, go to the beach, or maybe, attend a parade.

So for me, writing this article has been a journey of discovery on the meaning and the history of this day of remembrance. I’ll tell of the many origins of this celebration which have encompassed our entire nation. Some of these stories you already know, and others, as it did for me, will surprise you. One of these discoveries was a mostly unknown official act of remembrance that’s to be done at a very specific time on Memorial Day.

Also, this article will just focus on our national holiday, not the Confederate Memorial Day, which is still celebrated in many southern states.

 Join me now, as I take you on my journey of rediscovering the history and the meaning of America’s Memorial Day.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Although this poem by Dr. John McCrae was written during World War I, the wearing of a red poppy on Memorial Day came about from this famous poem.

The First National Decoration Day

Gen. John A. Logan. photo from the Library of Congress

Our national celebration of Memorial Day began shortly after the Civil War, when on May 5, 1868, General A. Logan, the leader of an organization of Northern Civil War veterans, proposed that a day be set aside to decorate the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers with flowers. Gen. Logan selected the day to be May 30, 1868, and it became known as Decoration Day

President James Garfield delivered a speech at Arlington National Cemetery on that first Decoration Day, which began a tradition among US Presidents that continues. Another tradition that was started then was having volunteers decorate the graves. On that first Decoration Day, over 5,000 participated in placing flowers on the graves of the 20,000 Civil War dead buried in Arlington then. Today, that tradition continues with active members of the military, who with honor, place flags on the more than 400,000 graves at Arlington.

The James R. Tanner Amphitheater, used for the first Decoration Day at Arlington. photo by author

Although Gen. Logan is credited for the beginnings of the national observation of Decoration Day, he most likely got his inspiration from the celebrations already going on in towns and cities across the country. Records tell that while the Civil War was still raging southern women had already been placing flowers on the graves of their fallen. It’s also known that the graves at Gettysburg were decorated with flowers as early as 1863. And while Doylestown Pennsylvania claims to be the home of the oldest continually running Memorial Day parade, which began in 1868, the town of Rochester Wisconsin claims that their parade predates that by a year. But there was likely another, little known, an act of remembrance for fallen Union soldiers that was much earlier, and took place immediately after the Confederacy’s surrender, and was conducted by those formally enslaved.

Martyrs of the Race Course

The Clubhouse at the Washington Race Course, Charleston South Carolina. Photo from the Library of Congress.

In 1996, Pulitzer Prize recipient David Blight was researching for a book he was writing on the Civil War. While collecting information on this subject at Harvard’s Houghton Library, he was asked by the curator if he’d be interested in boxes of unsorted material from Civil War veterans. Of course, he said yes. What he found was a story of a long-forgotten, and mostly unknown, act of remembrance.  Within one of the boxes was a file labeled, “First Decoration Day.” Inside was a handwritten narrative from an old Civil War veteran and a supportive article from the New York Tribune, which told a remarkable story.

In Charleston, South Carolina stood a pre-Civil War race track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club. Near the end of the war, this once posh country club was converted into a makeshift prison by the Confederates.  More than 260 Union prisoners of war would lose their lives from disease and exposure at that racecourse. Those dead were buried in a mass grave behind its grandstands.

The Tomb of the Unknown Civil War Soldiers. The remains of 1,100 unknown Union soldiers are entombed here at Arlington Cemetery. Photo by author.

After Charleston fell and the Confederate troops evacuated the racecourse and city, the newly emancipated men and women exhumed that mass grave and gave those Union soldiers a proper burial at a new cemetery. This cemetery was surrounded by a tall whitewashed fence, with an inscription at its entrance that read, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” But then something even more extraordinary took place.

On May 1, 1865, according to the New York Tribune and the Charleston Courier, a crowd of 10,000 freed people of color and white missionaries marched around the race track in remembrance of all those who had died there. Among the marchers were members of the 54th Massachusetts and other Black Union regiments. In addition, there were also three thousand Black schoolchildren who carried flowers and sang the tune “John Brown’s Body” as they marched around the track. If this story is correct, the race track gathering would have been the earliest commemoration of remembrance in the history of Memorial Day.

Waterloo New York

The National Memorial Day Museum in Waterloo New York. Photo by G. Aquino

As I mentioned, many towns and cities were celebrating a form of Decoration/Memorial Day, and many still claim to have been the first to do so. However, the “official” birthplace goes to Waterloo, New York. This designation went to this small Finger Lakes community when President Lyndon Johnson signed the proclamation declaring it as the birthplace of Memorial Day on May 26, 1966.

Waterloo has been celebrating the remembrance of its fallen since May 5, 1866. Beginning on that day, and each year after, the village’s businesses would close and its buildings and homes would be draped in black crepe. Then the people of the community would gather at the cemetery to place flowers and flags on the graves of soldiers. Waterloo, New York is also where the National Memorial Day Museum is located.

Decoration Day Becomes Memorial Day

It was after World War I that those remembered on Decoration Day were expanded to include all soldiers who had fallen in any of America’s wars, not just the Civil War.

Shortly after World War II the holiday’s name slowly began to change from Decoration Day to being called Memorial Day. In 1967 Congress officially changed its name to Memorial Day.

Arlington National Cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater. Dedicated on May 15, 1920 to replace the James R. Tanner amphitheater. This amphitheater is used three time a year: Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Easter. Photo by author

And In 1968, Congress passed the” Uniform Monday Holiday Act,” which gave federal employees a three-day weekend. This caused Memorial Day to be moved from its original last day in May, to the last Monday of May. This took effect in 1971, the same year that Memorial Day became an official federal holiday.

The National Moment of Remembrance

As the story goes, on a day in May of 1966 a group of children were on a tour of the nation’s capital. While at Lafayette Park, the tour director asked the children what Memorial Day meant to them. Quickly a young hand shot up and gleefully shouted, “That’s the day the pools open!”  A Gallup poll in 2000 showed that only28% of Americans knew the true meaning of Memorial Day. This caused the White House to form a Commission on Remembrance, to help promote the meaning and the values of Memorial Day. The Commission’s goal was to expand the remembrances from not just on the holiday, but also throughout the year.

 Following the guidance of this Commission, Congress passed PL 106-579; where “Congress called on the people of the United States, in a symbolic act of unity, to observe a National Moment of Remembrance to honor all the men and women of the United States who died in the pursuit of freedom and peace.” 

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington. Located behind the Memorial Amphitheater. Photo by author

As laid out in this Act, “the National Moment of Remembrance” is to be observed by all Americans at 3:00 pm (local time) on Memorial Day. It’s at that time that Americans are asked to stop and honor those who have fallen with a minute of silent reflection. 3 o’clock was chosen because the Commission felt that was the best time when most Americans would be enjoying their time off from work.

Another misunderstanding about Memorial Day is what veterans are to be remembered. It’s not soldiers currently serving, that’s Armed Forces Day. And it’s not for veterans in general, that’s Veterans Day. Memorial Day is to remember, and honor, those men and women who have died while in active service defending this country.

I hope you enjoyed this historical account of Memorial Day. If you’d like to learn more about those who’ve paid the ultimate price for this country please read my THREE STORIES OF HEROES OF NORMANDY.

Sources used:

The Army Historical Foundation . “General John A. Logan.” National Museum United States Army, the Army Historical Foundation, armyhistory.org/general-john-a-logan-memorial-day-founder/. Accessed 30 May 2021.

Doylestown PA Post 175 VFW. “Memorial Day History.” Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 175 Doylestown PA , Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 175 Doylestown PA , http://www.doylestownpost175vfw.org/blank-page. Accessed 1 June 2021.

Hart, Lorna. “On “Decoration Day’.” The Daily Sentinel, The Daily Sentinel, 28 May 2021, http://www.mydailysentinal.com/news/63740/on-decoration-day.

History.com Editors. “Memorial Day.” History, A & E Television Networks, 24 May 2021, http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/memorial-day-history.

“In Flanders Fields.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 31 May 2021, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Flanders_Fields.

“Memorial Amphitheater .” Arlington National Cemetery , Arlington National Cemetery , http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/Memorial-Amphitheater. Accessed 1 June 2021.

“National Moment of Remembrance .” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Feb. 2021, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Moment_of_Remembrance.

Ross, Dave. “One of the Earlist Memorial Day Ceremonies Was Held by Freed African Americans.” Histories Stories, A & E Television Networks, 10 May 2021, http://www.history.com/news/memorial-day-civil-war-slavery-charleston.

2 thoughts on “A Brief History of America’s Memorial Day

  1. Thanks Cuz. As usual a great read. I too don’t remember Memorial Day as a child except for picnics and bbqs.

    Sent from my iPhone

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