• Exploring American History

America’s First Memorial Day

When you hear the term “Memorial Day”, what thoughts fill your mind? Some think, “Summer is finally here! Let’s have a bar-b-que.” Keep in mind, there's nothing wrong with bar-b-ques; however, if that is the first thought in your mind, you’re missing the whole point of this special day.


The United States sets aside a number of holidays each year to reflect/remember certain important events in our history. July 4th for example. For most people, when that date is mentioned, thoughts return to 1776 and the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. That’s definitely an important day. In November, Thanksgiving Day reminds us of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans who taught them how to survive the winter so as to establish a colony in the New World.


Over the years, for America to continue and thrive, her military has played an important role. Returning to July 4th, the Continental Army and Navy were soon called upon to win the war for independence from England, rather than continue to live under a domineering monarchy that felt the need to keep a heavy thumb on her colonists. The sacrifices made by both men and women eventually resulted in the birth of what would become the greatest nation the world had ever known.


Over time, numerous wars would be fought for the preservation of America on battlefields at home and far away. The Civil War pitted Johnny Reb and Billy Yank – brother against brother – in a bloodthirsty brawl that came close to tearing this nation apart. Were it not for the God-given wisdom of President Abraham Lincoln, the United States ran the risk of being permanently torn into two different countries – the United States of America in the north and the Confederate States of America in the south.


Though there are some who may still wish this had occurred, fast forward into history and imagine America’s role on the world stage were she divided. Her level of strength would be greatly diminished and her ability to help overcome such forces as the Nazis of World War II, among other foes, would not have existed. Imagine then the outcome. Likely then the world’s predominant language would be German and the hatred of the Nazis would permeate the entire globe.


Due to the numerous military conflicts America has endured, special holidays have been set aside in order to remember those who have served so that Americans may continue to enjoy the freedoms the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights have bestowed upon us.


- The third Saturday of May is set aside as Armed Forces Day. This day draws attention to those men and women currently serving in the United States military.


- On November 11th, we celebrate Veterans Day, setting aside a day to remember those who have worn the nation’s uniform.


On the last Monday of May, Americans remember those who paid the ultimate price - Memorial Day. Many often considered this day the unofficial beginning of summer. Parades take place and the grill is dusted off for the first time in months. Though there is nothing wrong with backyard bar-b-ques, one should first focus more on why this day is celebrated.


So where did Memorial Day get its start? Actually, it began in the South. Every year in the spring, a day was set aside for families to visit and decorate the graves of their deceased family members with flowers; thus the name ‘Decoration Day'.


During the Civil War, approximately 620,000 individuals were killed – comprising 2% of the U.S. population at that time. As a result, a much larger number of individuals were now drawn to the cemeteries on a national level. In the South, Confederate widows and their families would continue the tradition of visiting the graves of their loved ones to leave flowers on Decoration Day.


The Battle of Shiloh, fought in southwestern Tennessee, resulted in 23,800 casualties, among which were 3,500 deaths. Due to that large number, many Union soldiers were buried in the same area as the Confederates. As the widows and loved ones visited these graves, it was often hard to tell which were Confederate and which were Union. In time, the visitors’ hearts imagined the grief of the Union families whose patriots lay beneath the ground with their own loved ones, along with the Confederates who died and were buried in Union soil. As a result, it was decided that instead of decorating only Confederate graves, all graves would now be honored.


In May 1866, Union General John A. Logan declared the nation should set aside a day each year to remember those who had given their lives in service to their country. Referred to as the Founder of Memorial Day, General Logan’s declaration followed a visit by his wife to Arlington National Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. There she viewed lines of stones that stretched off into the distance. What surprised her most about these stones were the decorations displayed on them.


“In the churchyard, we saw hundreds of graves of Confederate soldiers. These graves had upon them bleached Confederate flags and faded flowers and wreaths that had been laid upon by loving hands. I had never been so touched by what I had seen.”


Upon Mary’s return to Washington, she immediately contacted her husband to share with him what she had seen in the cemetery. Her recollection was so touching, General Logan told her, “Within my power, I will see that the tradition is carried out for Union soldiers as well.” He spent little time making good on his promise.


General Logan quickly sent a letter to the adjunct-general of the Grand Army of the Republic (i.e. GAR - a Union fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army, Navy, Marines and the US Revenue Cutter Service during the American Civil War). In his letter, he stated:


The 30th day 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 or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.



The first Memorial Day celebration took place at Arlington National Cemetery. At that time, General Logan gave directions as to how the event would proceed:


Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude, — the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

Mary would later state that her husband chose the end of May for the holiday due to the fact nature would at that time of the year provide an abundance of flowers in their greatest perfection.


During that time in history, weather predictions were not what they are today; consequently, there was no way for anyone to know what the weather would be during the ceremony. Thankfully, God blessed the occasion with a sunny, warm day. Numerous baskets overflowed with flowers of pristine condition which were spread throughout the grounds of the national cemetery. It was later described by those in attendance as “a beautiful day”.


On this Memorial Day, before you fire up the grill, take time to remember those whose sacrifices made it possible for you to enjoy this special holiday.


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Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy

forget in time that men have died to win them.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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