Q: I’ve heard different cities listed as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Where was it first held?
Answer: During and after the Civil War, many communities had local observances to commemorate veterans from their areas who had died in the line of duty; the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says that about two dozen places claim to be the primary source for the holiday.
Some of the earliest such observances included in Boalsburg, Pa., where women decorated veterans’ graves each year starting in 1864; and in Charleston, S.C., where a “Decoration day” was held in 1865, in which former slaves honored dead Union soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp, digging up the bodies and giving them a proper burial.
A presidential proclamation by Lyndon Johnson in 1966 labeled Waterloo, N.Y., as the official birthplace of Memorial Day for a commemoration that began in 1866. According to the city’s website, “On May 5, 1866, the Village was decorated with flags at half mast, draped with evergreens and mourning black. Veterans, civic societies and residents, led by General (John B.) Murray, marched to the strains of martial music to the three village cemeteries. There impressive ceremonies were held and soldiers’ graves decorated. One year later, on May 5, 1867, the ceremonies were repeated.”
As to why the Waterloo event beat out earlier contenders, according to the VA, “Supporters of Waterloo’s claim say earlier observances in other places were either informal, not community-wide or one-time events.”
Memorial Day as a national day was first observed on May 30, 1868, also under the name “Decoration Day.” It was instituted by the Grand Army of the Republic — which was made up of veterans of the Union army — and was originally designed to remember soldiers who died during the Civil War. The charter that introduced Decoration Day stated that its purpose was to ensure that “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” (General Orders No. 11, Grand Army of the Republic).
According to the VA’s history, at Arlington National Cemetery, “Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant presided the meeting and the center point of these Memorial Day ceremonies was the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion. Speeches were followed by a march of soldiers’ children and orphans and members of the GAR through the cemetery strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves. They also recited prayers and sang hymns for the dead.”
Maj. Gen. John A. Logan appointed May 30 as the day for the observation. The order stated that it was a day for “strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves” of soldiers killed in the Civil War.” Waterloo moved its commemoration from May 5 to May 30 to join other communities in holding the observance on that day.
After World War I, Memorial Day was expanded to honor those who died in all American wars. In 1971, it was declared a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Monday in May.