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Memorial Day: A Day of Remembrance and Tribute

The origin of Memorial Day, a day to commemorate the lives of American military personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice, dates to the end of the Civil War. Local observances took place in the north and south immediately following the end of the war with multiple locations claiming to have held the first ceremonies. Traditionally, flowers were placed to decorate the graves of those who died hence the name Decoration Day.

Decoration Day

“Local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead already had been held in various places. One of the first occurred in Columbus, Miss., April 25, 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves, as well… A stone in a Carbondale, Ill., cemetery carries the statement that the first Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866. Carbondale was the wartime home of Gen. Logan.”

General John A. Logan

John A. Logan was a soldier and politician. A congressman from Illinois, he joined the Union forces as a colonel early in the Civil War and rose to the rank of general. After the war he returned to politics in the House and Senate and ran for vice president in 1884. It was John Logan who, in 1868 as commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), called for a national day to pay tribute to those who died in the Civil War.

Logan issued General Order No. 11 on May 5, 1868 which reads “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… We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or 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...Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor…” To read the full text

Decoration Day, May 30, 1868

Invitation and program of the ceremonies which included a procession of children from the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Orphan Asylum who placed flowers and flags upon the graves, services at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and a reading of Lincoln's dedicatory address at Gettysburg.

Read a detailed news account of the ceremony: "Soldiers' Graves Decorated," The National Republican (Washington, DC), June 1, 1868, Page 2, Image 2, col. 4-6.

Jennie Vernon

In 1868 the story of a kind gesture by a 12 year old girl would be picked up by newspapers across the country. For a short time in 1862 a prison for Confederate POWs was located in Lafayette Indiana and deceased soldiers were interred in the local cemetery. While preparing for ceremonies in Lafayette's Greenbush Cemetery a wreath was received from a local girl.

A short note was attached to the wreath:

Will you please put this wreath upon some rebel soldier's grave. My dear papa is buried at Andersonville, and perhaps some little girl will be kind enough to put a few flowers upon his grave.
Jennie Vernon

Memorial Day

Following the Great War (World War I) May 30th became a day to honor all those in the American military who died in service. The use of the term Memorial Day became more widely adopted instead of the more traditional Decoration Day. A federal law in 1967 officially named the holiday Memorial Day. It wasn’t until 100 years after the first national Decoration Day, established by General Logan, that Congress would authorize a major change to the holiday. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved certain federal holidays to specific Mondays in order to create three-day weekends for federal employees. The 1968 act included Washington’s Birthday, Veteran’s Day (in 1978 it was restored to Nov. 11), Memorial Day (moved to the last Monday in May), and Columbus Day, these changes would take effect in 1971.

Dedication of the new War Memorial at Stony Brook 1946. L to R: Leslie Jayne, H.V. Kaltenborn, Duane Cole.

National Moment of Remembrance Act

In 2000 the National Moment of Remembrance Act was passed. Its purpose was to reclaim Memorial Day as the noble event it was intended to be, to honor those who died in service to our nation and sacrificed their lives for our freedoms. It calls for all persons at 3:00pm on Memorial Day to informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to "Taps."


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