Like many of our national holidays, the origin of Memorial Day is claimed by different communities. Graves have been decorated with flowers since ancient times. In America, honoring of those who died for our country began following the Civil War.
In the South, citizens would decorate the graves of soldiers from both the Union and Confederate Armies. Thus the origin of what we now call Memorial Day was one of healing. On May 1, 1865, recently freed slaves held a parade in Charleston, South Carolina to honor fallen Union soldiers. Ten thousand freed slaves participated. Many of the soldiers honored by this event had been held as prisoners, suffered, and died following sadistic treatment. Prior to May 1, the slaves had dug up the mass graves and reburied the soldiers into rows. Unfortunately, the cemetery has now been replaced with a park honoring a Confederate General.
Local celebrations began to occur in communities across America. Waterloo, NY is given credit by some as the origin of Memorial Day since it was more formal and involved the closing of local businesses.
What began as local celebrations eventually went nationwide in 1868 when General John Logan initiated a commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery. The commemoration was called Decoration Day, and May 30 was chosen as the annual date for remembering fallen heroes. Decoration referred to flowers placed on the graves and May 30 was chosen because of the availability of flowers in most parts of the country. Initially, those honored were just those from the Civil War.
Over time, the name Decoration Day faded to be replaced by Memorial Day. It wasn’t until 1971 that Memorial Day became an official federal holiday. May 30th was replaced by the last Monday in May.
Since Memorial Day has gone from May 30 to the last Monday in May. What began as a solemn remembrance has become just another 3-day weekend. Beginnings are like that, especially those that become federal holidays. The original purpose is lost in favor of relaxation and leisure activities.
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“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. …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.” – Major General John A. Logan