It was three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, when Maj. John A Logan, the head of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. He declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
In 1968 the first large observance was held at the Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, which was once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. Children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.
More than 25 local towns claim to be the first to have been the birthplace of Memorial Day. Shiloh and Richmond, Macon and Columbus, Boalsburg and Carbondale all claim to be the first. In fact, there is a stone in a Carbondale, Illinois’ cemetery that carries the statement the first Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866. Carbondale was the wartime home of Gen. Logan.
Local Observances Claim To Be First Local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead already had been held in various places. One of the first occurred in Columbus, Miss., 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 were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves, as well.
Regardless of where the first observation took place, the Official Birthplace was declared In 1966, by Congress and President Lyndon Johnson as Waterloo, N.Y. There, a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff. Supporters of Waterloo’s claim say earlier observances in other places were either informal, not community-wide or one-time events.
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. It was not until after World War I, however, that 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, as were some other federal holidays.
Gen. Logan’s order for his posts to decorate graves in 1868 “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.” Then, as now, small American flags and flowers were placed on each grave — a tradition followed at many national cemeteries today. In recent years, the custom has grown in many families to decorate the graves of all departed loved ones.
After World War I, Calvin Coolidge, as part of his acceptance speech for the Republican vice-presidential nomination on July 27th 1920, “The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.” While his sentiment was a caution to the country against abandoning its social contract with its warriors, the same can be applied to a day of remembrance, or memorial.
Honoring the war dead dates back to the beginning of recorded time. The Athenian leader Pericles offered a tribute to the fallen heroes of the Peloponnesian War over 24 centuries ago. “Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.”
To date there have been 1,354,664 US war dead. This is the high cost of freedom. There is nothing wrong with backyard barbecues and ball games in the park. There is nothing wrong with celebrations and parades. However, do not forget to remember those who provided those freedoms, that we all enjoy. Spend time with your family. Teach your children that while the day is fun, it came with a price. We all live on borrowed freedom and we all owe future generations the freedoms that were provided for us. The way we honor the dead is to live our lives in a way deserving of the sacrifices made and to pay it forward.