From Decoration Day to Memorial Day: Honoring the fallen

Published 4:30 pm Saturday, May 7, 2022

Early Observances of Memorial Day were a result of the Civil War, which ended in the spring of 1865, and claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history. It also required the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries. 

By the late 1860s, Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers. It is unclear where exactly this tradition originated; numerous different communities may have independently initiated the memorial gatherings. And some records show that one of the earliest Memorial Day commemorations was organized by a group of formerly enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865.

 Nevertheless, in 1966 the federal government declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Today, each year on Memorial Day, a national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time. On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month.

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 “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,” he proclaimed. 

The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any battle. On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there. Memorial Day, as Decoration Day gradually came to be known, originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. 

But during World War I the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars, including World War II, The Vietnam War, The Korean War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date General Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day.

 But in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday. Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for our fallen veterans, not our living veterans. We honor the service of all our living veterans on Veterans Day, November 11. It is not appropriate to say, “Happy Memorial Day.” It is appropriate for Veteran’s Day. 


Excerpts from Gene Hays is an author and historian and a Vietnam veteran, with books available at