The Origin of Memorial Day

The Origin of Memorial Day
Origin of Memorial Day

Memorial Day is set aside to remember the soldiers who lost their lives in dedication for the service to their country. Memorial Day [1] can be traced back to May 30, 1868, where it was first observed after a proclamation by General John A. Logan.

General Logan was a member of the organization of former soldiers and sailors of the Grand Army of the Republic. During the first commemoration, or Decoration Day, the first speech was made by Ohio Congressman, James Garfield. James also happened to be a former Union General.  After the speech, more than 5,000 people who had attended the proceedings helped to decorate more than 20,000 the graves of former Confederate soldiers that day.

Inspiration Behind its Observance

Various towns across the United States of America had been observing the Memorial Day for the past 3 years after the end of the Civil War. New York was the first state in the country to officially recognize this day as a holiday in 1873. A few years later, more communities and cities started to observe the day as well. By the late 1800s, more states had already declared it as an official holiday.  By the end of the World War I, Memorial Day became a day used to honor all the soldiers who had died in serving the USA military in different wars.

When Is Memorial Day?

Congress established Memorial Day in 1971 through the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, meaning that Memorial Day was now an official holiday in the USA. The holiday is celebrated on the last Monday in May[2]; however, there are a few southern states that have set aside an additional day to honor the Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War.

Confederate Memorial Day

Confederate Memorial Day is celebrated on January 19 in Texas. Arkansas honor it on the 3rd Monday in January, while Alabama honors it on the 4th Monday in April. Florida and Georgia have set aside April 26th to honor this day, while North Carolina and South Carolina honor it on May 10th. Virginia honors it on the last Monday in May, while Tennessee and Louisiana honor it in June 3rd.

Memorial Day is officially commemorated at Arlington National Cemetery in a ceremony presided over by the Vice President or President of the United States. The leader in attendance places a flag on the grave of an unknown soldier. Participants in the ceremony place a small American flag on each grave at the cemetery. It is estimated that more than 5,000 people attend the event each year.

Some Things You May Not Know About the Origin of Memorial Day

  • It May Have Some Ancient Roots

Although the very first commemorative event was not held until the late 19th century, the practice to honor [3] those who have died in battle can be traced back to thousands of years ago.  Ancient Romans and Greeks held annual remembrance days to remember their loved ones, including soldiers. They held the events once a year and placed flowers on the graves. They also held public feasts and festivals each year on the day set aside for these festivities. In Athens, the populace would hold public funerals for their fallen soldiers at the end of each battle.

The remains of those who had passed away in battle would be displayed in public for mourning before they could be taken for internment through a public procession.

  • One of the Earliest Memorial Day Commemorations Was Organized by Recently Freed Slaves

When the Civil War ended, soldiers, who had been held as prisoners, assembled in camps spread all over Charleston, South Carolina. The conditions in some of these hastily assembled camps were so bad that more than 250 prisoners eventually died, caused by disease and exposure. They were later on buried in a mass grave located behind the camp. Less than 3 weeks later, an unusual procession made its way into the former prisoner camp. On May 1, 1865, more than a 1,000 recently freed slaves, a handful of white Charlestonians, and regiments of U.S colored troops gathered at the camp to give the deceased a proper burial. During the burial, the recently freed slaves distributed flowers, gave readings, and sang hymns.

The Foundation of the Memorial Day

As mentioned earlier, Memorial Day’s beginning can be traced back to General John A Logan. He meant to honor the lives of the more than 620,000[4] soldiers who had died or had been killed in the Civil War.

Legend has it that General Logan chose this day because it was a day that did not fall on any anniversary used to commemorate the Civil War. But, some historians believe this day was selected because it was when flowers across the country would be in full bloom.

When the Civil War ended, General Logan, a war veteran, returned back to his former political career. It is worth noting that he had earlier on served as a US congressman before resigning to rejoin the army. He would later be elected to serve in both the Senate and House. He passed away in 1886, after unsuccessfully vying for Republican Vice President 2 years earlier. His body was laid in state at the Rotunda in the U.S Capitol. Logan Circle in Washington D.C., together with other towns spread across the country, has been named in honor of this legend who issued the celebrated Memorial Day. 


  1. http://www.pbs.org/national-memorial-day-concert/
  2. http://time.com/4346170/memorial-day-three-day-weekend/
  3. http://time.com/110697/memorial-day-facts/

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