Memorial Day Began as ‘Decoration Day’

Honoring an observance that started after the Civil War, Sheridan's American Legion pays tribute to all those who died in service to their country. (Photo by Pat Blair)

Sheridan Media reporter Pat Blair has done some research on the observance we now call “Memorial Day.” Here’s her story.

No one seems quite sure where the observance started, but by the late 1860s, Americans in various towns and cities were holding springtime tributes to the soldiers who died in the Civil War, decorating their graves with flowers, and reciting prayers.

The gun salute was followed by the playing of “Taps.” (Photo by Pat Blair)

According to some records, one of the earliest commemorations was organized by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, less than a month after the war’s end in 1865.

Then on May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance to be held on May 30, to decorate the graves of those who died fighting in the war. He decreed the date should be called Decoration Day.

On that first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

In addition, more than 27 states held their own ceremonies, and by 1890, every state of the former Union had adopted Decoration Day as an official holiday.

Starting during World War I, the holiday evolved to commemorate those who died in all of the conflicts in which the United States became embroiled, and the use of Memorial Day to designate the holiday reportedly became more common after World War II.

The name “Memorial Day” was officially adopted in the late 1960s, but Memorial Day didn’t become a federal holiday until 1971. The same law that created the holiday also changed the date of the observance from May 30 to the last Monday in May.

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