Memorial Day is the first long weekend of summer and for many Americans, a chance to kick-off the summer season. The origins of Memorial Day, however, hearken back to a somber time in American history.
As the Civil War came to a close in April 1865, the nation mourned the loss of an estimated 620,000 war dead. Some were hastily buried in unmarked single or mass graves during the heat of battle. Soldiers didn’t carry official identification or dog tags, and many soldiers remained unidentified.
Shortly after the war ended, U.S. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs ordered an assessment of the condition and location of graves of Union soldiers. Many were reinterred in newly opened national cemeteries. This federal program initially applied only to Union soldiers. Outraged citizens of the South organized a similar private effort, often led by women, to remember the Confederate dead.
As the first anniversary of the end of the war approached in April 1866, some women from the South made plans to honor the Confederate dead by decorating their graves with flowers and greens. The idea caught hold and spread until cities all over the south declared April 26th as a day to honor the Confederate dead.
In 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union veterans, established May 30th as Decoration Day, or a day to remember the war dead of the nation. The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery. More than 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.
The tradition continued in following years and many northern states designated the day as a state holiday. Southern states continued to honor their dead on a separate day but the divide that separated North from South began to heal. In 1873, a little orphaned girl whose father died fighting the South placed flowers on a Confederate grave. “Would you decorate the grave of a rebel?” exclaimed a bystander. “Yes!” she replied. “Perhaps somebody in the south will drop a flower on papa’s grave.”
After WWI, Decoration Day gradually became known as Memorial Day and was expanded to honor the dead from all of America’s wars. Many cities boasted they were the first to hold Decoration Day observances. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson officially declared that Waterloo, New York, be designated as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day because of early observances held there. In 1971 Congress declared Memorial Day a federal holiday and designated that it be observed the last Monday in May, although some southern states still set aside an additional day of observance for the Confederate dead.
How do you plan to celebrate Memorial Day? To learn more about the history of Decoration Day, and what later became known as Memorial Day, search Newspapers.com today! Do you have ancestors that served in the Armed Forces? Honor their service this Memorial Day by creating a Fold3 Memorial or search the Honor Wall to learn more about those who have sacrificed for our freedom.