In 1868, Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic issued General Order Number 11 designating May 30 as a memorial day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
The first national celebration of the holiday took place May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery, where both Confederate and Union soldiers were buried. Originally known as Decoration Day, at the turn of the century it was designated as Memorial Day. In many American towns, the day is celebrated with a parade.
Southern women decorated the graves of soldiers even before the Civil War’s end. Records show that by 1865, Mississippi, Virginia, and South Carolina all had precedents for Memorial Day. Songs in the Duke University collection Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920 External include hymns published in the South such as these two from 1867: “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping External,” dedicated to “The Ladies of the South Who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead ” and “Memorial Flowers External,” dedicated “To the Memory of Our Dead Heroes.”
When a women’s memorial association in Columbus, Mississippi, decorated the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers on April 25, 1866, this act of generosity and reconciliation prompted an editorial piece, published by Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, and a poem by Francis Miles Finch, “The Blue and the Grey,” published in the Atlantic Monthly. The practice of strewing flowers on soldiers’ graves soon became popular throughout the reunited nation.
President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed Waterloo, New York, as the “Birthplace of Memorial Day,” because it began a formal observance on May 5, 1866. However, Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, also claims to have held the first observance, based on an observance dating back to October 1864. Indeed, many other towns also lay claim to being the first to hold an observance.
In 1971, federal law changed the observance of the holiday to the last Monday in May and extended the honor to all soldiers who died in American wars. A few states continue to celebrate Memorial Day on May 30.
Today, national observance of the holiday still takes place at Arlington National Cemetery with the placing of a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the decoration of each grave with a small American flag. Protocol for flying the American flag on Memorial Day includes raising it quickly to the top of the pole at sunrise, immediately lowering it to half-staff until noon, and displaying it at full staff from noon until sunset. For other guidelines see the Flag Code.
Many veterans of the Vietnam War, and relatives and friends of those who fought in that conflict, make a pilgrimage over Memorial Day weekend to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., where they pay their respects to another generation of fallen soldiers.
When flow’ry Summer is at hand,
And Spring has gemm’d the earth with bloom,
We hither bring, with loving hand,
Bright flow’rs to deck our soldier’s tomb.
Gentle birds above are sweetly singing
O’er the graves of heroes brave and true;
While the sweetest flow’rs we are bringing,
Wreath’d in garlands of red, white and blue.
With snowy hawthorn, clusters white,
Fair violets of heav’nly blue,
And early roses, fresh and bright,
We wreathe the red, and white, and blue.
- View Maya Lin’s proposal for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the Memory section of the exhibition, American Treasures of the Library of Congress
- For more songs, hymns, and marches associated with this holiday, search on the term Memorial Day or Decoration Day in the collections Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920 External and Music for the Nation, 1870-1885.
- There are many photographs of Memorial Day celebrations in the American Memory Collections. Search the following collections on Memorial Day or Decoration Day for images of:
- Decoration Day, 1916 in Brownsville, Texas, in The South Texas Border, 1900-1920 External
- Memorial Day, 1920, in an American cemetery in France, captioned Cérémonie du “Memorial Day” au Cimetière Américain de Suresnes, le 30 Mai 1920, in Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991
- Memorial Day, 1942, in both Southington, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C., in the color photographs of the America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945
- Search the following collections on the phrase Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, cemetery, or soldier’s monument for more photographs: