The Origins of Memorial Day

A blistering day in South Carolina, May 1st, 1865 in Charleston. The South had been devastated by the Civil War, a war that had claimed more lives than any other conflict in US History. A small group of former slaves gathered around a mass grave of Union Soldiers that Confederates had buried from a Confederate prison camp. There were 257 soldiers in all, and this small group of people meant to honor every single one. They labored for two weeks, digging up each and every body, dressing them, and giving them a proper burial in gratitude for the soldiers’ service and death. When each Union soldier had been given a good burial, they held a parade of almost 10,000 people strong to commemorate the honored dead.

This is the most often-told origin story for the US federal holiday of Memorial Day. It’s a holiday observed on the last Monday of May, and it honors men and woman who died while serving in the US Military. The story of the group of freed slaves who worked to honor the dead Union soldiers is one of many stories from the 1860s, just after the carnage of the US Civil War. Americans all across the country had begun to purposefully remember the sacrifice their loved ones had made, decorating their graves at springtime with flowers and praying over their dead.

The accepted birthplace of Memorial Day is, in fact, not Charleston, SC, but Waterloo, New York. It was declared the official birthplace of the holiday in 1966 because every year the city hosted a community-wide holiday when business closed up shop and residents decorated and cared for the graves of fallen soldiers. They’d been doing this since May 5, 1866.

The US National Park Service attributes Memorial Day’s origins to a group of women who went around during April and May throughout the Southern states, visiting the families of soldiers to help them honor their dead and volunteering to tend local cemeteries.

In May of 1868, two years after Waterloo started officially commemorating the fallen soldiers of the Civil War, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Union veterans, called for a nationwide remembrance day to be held later in May, specifically: May 30th. He asked that the day be set aside to decorate the graves of the men who died in defense of their country and he called the day “Decoration Day”, because it wasn’t commemorating any specific battle, just the honored dead. On the first Decoration Day in US History, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. There were over 5,000 people in an attendance that day, decorating the graves of 20,000 soldiers, both Union and Confederate buried there.

The day remained “Decoration Day” until after World War I: the United States’ second major conflict since the Civil War. Originally, the holiday had been created to honor the dead from the Civil War, but after WWI, the holiday became a day of remembrance all of the American troops who died across all of US history.

Memorial Day was observed on May 30th all the way up until the late sixties. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established that Memorial Day would be held officially on the last Monday in May. It declared Memorial Day an official federal holiday. This effectively created a three-day weekend for federal employees, and set in to place an official date for honoring the United States’ fallen soldiers. The holiday came into effect three years later, in 1971.

On Memorial Day, the US flag is raised to the top of the staff and then lowered to half-staff position, where it will remain until noon of the same day, and then it’s raised back up to full-staff for the remainder of the day. Parades are held all across the United States, featuring marching bands and the National Guard.

In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, asking people to stop and remember the lives that have been given to preserve the freedoms Americans enjoy at 3:00 PM, on the dot, every Memorial Day.