The History Of Memorial Day

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As I was pondering what my topic for this blog would be it hit me that this particular post would be going up on Memorial Day.  So I decided that a fitting observance would be to discuss a little about origins and history of this special day.

wellesIn 1866, as the country was trying to heal from the long and bloody Civil War, a drugstore owner in Waterloo, NY by the name of Henry Welles, watched the surviving soldiers come home, some with horrendous injuries and missing limbs, most with nightmarish stories to tell, and decided to do something to recognize the sacrifices that had been made.  He discussed his idea with General John Murray, a war hero and intensely patriotic man.  General Murray supported the idea and helped rally the local veterans’ murraysupport.  Welles’ and Murray’s suggestion that the businesses in town close up shop for one day to remember and honor who had given their lives in the war and were buried in the town cemetery was met with community-wide approval.  On May 5th of that year the shops did indeed close.  The village was draped in evergreens and mourning black, flags were flown at half mast and the townspeople marched to the three town cemeteries to the sound of martial music.  Solemn ceremonies were held and the graves were decorated with wreaths, flowers and crosses.

The ceremony became an annual event.

On May 30th, 1868 General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of an organization of veteran soldiers and sailors called the Grand Army of the Republic, established Decoration Day with this declaration in his General Order 11:

The 30th of May, 1868, is designated 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. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

May 30th was chosen as the date in part because it was not the anniversary of any given battle and so could stand on its own. 

garfieldThat first year, General James Garfield, who would later become the 20th president of the United States, gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery.  Afterwards, an estimated 5,000 people pitched in to adorn the graves of the more than 20,000 Civil War soldiers, both Union and Confederate, who were buried there.

In 1882 the name was changed to Memorial Day and by the end of the nineteenth century, towns and communities across the nation were observing the day in some way.  After World War I, the observances expanded to recognize and honor those Americans who had died in any war in service to their country.

Of course those early observances in Waterloo, NY were not the sole or even the first such ceremonies.  Local observances of this type had been undertaken in many towns across the country since the end of the Civil War.  In fact, even though President Lyndon Johnson in May of 1966 declared Waterloo NY to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, over two dozen cities, both in the North and the South, still claim to hold that honor.  Among them are Macon GA, Richmond VA, Carbondale IL and Columbus MS.  It is said Waterloo NY received the official nod from President Johnson because it was the one town that had made Memorial Day an annual event, one the entire community supported by shutting down businesses for the day and showing up in large numbers to honor the fallen.

In 1971 that Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be arlington-02celebrated on the last Monday in May.  On the national front, Memorial Day is observed at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia with special reverence.  In the early hours of the Friday before Memorial Day, soldiers of the Third US Infantry walk along the rows of over 200,000 grave markers, pauses before each and places the shaft of a small flag into the ground before it.  These soldiers are members of the Old Guard, a special regiment, and it is considered an honor to be selected for this duty.  As one soldier said “They have done their job and now it is time to do mine.”

On Memorial Day itself, it is customary for the president or vice-president to give a speech honoring the contributions of these fallen heroes and to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Members of the armed forces shoot a rifle salute in the air.  About 5,000 people attend the ceremony each year (the same number who attended that first ceremony with General Garfield presiding).

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I hope that today, whatever your plans, you will take some time to remember and honor those who have given their lives to protect the freedom and quality of life that we Americans enjoy.

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Winnie Griggs
Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author or email her at winnie@winniegriggs.com.

20 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Thank you for a timely and informative post. Unfortunately for many, Memorial Day is just the first three day weekend of the summer. Too many have forgotten the reason and meaning behind it. The sacrifices of the men and women and their families over the years should not be forgotten. If nothing else, the current world situation has once again brought that to everyone’s attention.
    Hope you all have a wonderful day with your friends and families. And I hope everyone take at least a few minutes to remember all those who have fought for our country.

  2. Hi Winnie! A fitting post to be sure . . . One of the most moving things I’ve ever seen is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Memorial Day. The black wall makes a gash in the grassy mall. On Memorial Day its lined with American flags and hundreds of people paying respects.

    Thanks for the timely and meaning post.

  3. Thank you, Winnie, for the post and the reminder. It’s easy to get caught up in cook outs and boating with the family and friends and forget why.

    And Vicki, the impact of seeing the Vietnam War Memorial is something that will stay with me all my life.

  4. Hi Winnie, thanks for this beautiful, meaningful post. We’re hanging close to home today but will likely drive through our local cemetery which is decorated with over 1000 flags this weekend. It’s glorious.

    Quite some years ago, the replica Vietnam Memorial travelled to our town, and we took the kids to see it. Although my hubby and I choked up, they didn’t really understand, and I clearly remember our little girl asking, “Daddy, what’s a powmee-ah?” (POW-MIA)

    God bless America.

  5. Patricia – You’re welcome. I enjoyed doing the research and learned several new things about the Holiday’s origins. And I hope you have a wonderful day as well

    Victoria, Tracy, Tanya – I’ve seen the Vietnam Memorial in Washington as well and it is definitely a stirring, heart and soul touching sight. My husband served in the Navy in the Vietnam era, back before I met him. He doesn’t talk about that time in his life much, but standing next to him and feeling his reaction as we viewed the memorial was an experience I can’t describe and will never forget.

  6. Hi Winnie! This was a great topic. In your research did you find that after the civil war, the north and south celebrated on different dates, because there was still animosity? I rememebe reading that it took until WWI for a date to be agreed upon.

    We should all take time to remember the sacrifices and heroic qualities of every person, living or dead, who ever served our country in any manner. We wouldn’t have the freedom to celebrate holidays or attend church or many of the things we take for granted if not for them.

    THANK YOU, veterans!

  7. Tanya, if it’s not too late, take PICTURES of the cemetery.

  8. Hi Winnie,

    Wow, I didn’t know Memorial Day went back that far! Very interesting. I’m really glad we put aside a day to remember the fallen heroes. I think it’s important as a people and a nation. We mustn’t forget the ones who protect our freedom. I’m guilty of taking too much for granted. But today I’m going to set aside some time to honor our veterans.

    Thanks for a great post!

  9. Winnie,

    Thanks for the post honoring out soldiers! It’s a special day in our country and we all know someone who has served and made sacrifices. Loved learning the actual history behind the holiday!

  10. Cheryl – yes, that’s one of the tidbits I cam across. There’s such a rich history here that I just couldn’t inlude everything!

    Linda – I think we’re all guilty of taking things for granted on ocassion. That’s why days like this one or so important – gives us the opportunity to pause and remember

    Charlene – glad you enjoyed the post. And your right – we all know womeone sho has been touched by war in some way

  11. I just want to say thank you to all the men and women who have served or our serving our country now. They keep us safe and protect our liberty.

  12. During the NASCAR race, which was postponed from yesterday due to rain, at 3pm ET / 2pm CT, they stopped the race for 1 minute of silence in honor of Memorial Day. The cars stopped in the middle of the track, turned their engines off and sat still for a full minute. Quite moving.

  13. Tracy, that was a very moving tribute. I try whenever I know that someone is a vet to thank him and anyone in uniform is going to get a thanks from me. Of course there have been times when I thanked someone who had not been a veteran but other than the embarasement of that, on the whole it has been a wonderful experience for me.

  14. Hi Connie, My youngest son recently joined the KY National Guard. He went through Basic Training last autumn and traveled home for Christmas in uniform. Every time someone thanked him, he grew an inch taller. : ) Those simple praises mean a lot, especially to a young man or woman far from home.

  15. Our family has always answered the call with
    17 members in the service of this country since
    WWII. God bless America!

    Pat Cochran

  16. Sorry to be slow checking in today. Thanks for the memorial day blog. I love small town Memorial Day celebrations. I’m sure larger towns are wonderful too, grander, but it’s veyr personal in a small town.
    My hometown lost a lot of soldiers, percentage-wise, in WWII. And it’s still touching lives, people who’s son or father or husband or grandfather didn’t come home.

  17. I did get some pix taken! Beautiful day here. I did a personal blog on MemDay and yes, the south did not celebrate May 30 for quite a while.

  18. We were blessed in that all our military
    men plus one woman came safely home. We
    are all praying that the nephew who is still
    in the National Guard will complete his 20
    years very soon. He is currently scheduled
    for a third Iraq deployment around the end of
    the year.

    Pat Cochran

  19. Great post, Winnie. I didn’t know about the Old Guard tradition. What a nice way to remember our heroes.

    Pat, what a heritage to be proud of!

  20. Pat – what a sobering and patriotic legacy.

    Joanne – Hi, glad you stopped by. And glad you learned a little tidbit of info.

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