Memorial Day commemorates the men and women who died while in the military service. It began, May 5, 1868, three years after the Civil War ended as Decoration Day, when Major General John A. Logan declared May 30 as Decoration Day, a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
General Logan ordered his posts to decorate graves in “with the choicest flowers of springtime” and to “guard their graves with sacred vigilance. ... Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
The first large observance was held May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery. The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion. The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those attend today’s observances, about 5,000 people. Then, as now, small American flags were placed on each grave. As were flowers. In recent years, the custom has grown in many families to decorate the graves of all departed loved ones.
Other observances claim to be first Local Springtime Tributes to the Civil War dead. One of the first occurred in Columbus, Mississippi, April 25, 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. Nearby graves of Union soldiers which had been neglected because they were the enemy, disturbed the women so they placed some of their flowers on those graves, as well.
In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, where a ceremony was held on May 5, 1866, to honor local veterans who had fought in the Civil War, as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. During this ceremony, businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff. 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 for observance to fallen soldiers and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.
It was not until after World War I, however, 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.
Some States Have Confederate Observances days for honoring the Confederate dead. Mississippi celebrates Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday of April, Alabama on the fourth Monday of April, and Georgia on April 26. North and South Carolina observe it on May 10, Louisiana on June 3 and Tennessee calls that date Confederate Decoration Day. Texas celebrates Confederate Heroes Day January 19 and Virginia calls the last Monday in May Confederate Memorial Day.
To ensure the sacrifices of America ’s fallen heroes, all 1.1 million Americans who have died in the nation’s wars, are never forgotten, in December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.
The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation and put the memorial, which dwells in the hearts of a grateful Nation, back in Memorial Day.