A Brief History of Memorial Day

Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer for many people. The weather is warmer, the flowers are in bloom, and beaches and pools open for the warmer months. The true meaning of Memorial is much more than that. It is the official day of remembrance for all US military personnel that gave their lives for our country. This federal holiday had a humble yet honorable beginning, and has been celebrated for almost 150 years.

Memorial Day started out as Decoration Day. It was observed as early as 1866. The purpose was to decorate the graves of the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. Women’s groups would visit cemeteries to lay flowers at the gravestones of the war dead. Many cities lay claim as the first to observe the holiday, both in the north and south of the country.

On May 5, 1868, Major General John A. Logan declared May 30 to be Memorial Day in his General Order No. 11. Logan was the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. In the order, he famously stated, “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.”

May 30, 1868, was the first national observance of Memorial Day. Gen. Ulysses S Grant and his wife led the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where flowers were placed on the graves of soldiers of both the Union and Confederate armies. This was a show of unity that was much needed for the nation as it began to heal from the war.

In 1915, Moina Michael wrote a poem inspired by “In Flanders Field” that referenced the poppy as a symbol of the blood lost on the battlefield. She also started the tradition of wearing the poppy on Memorial Day. Even today, artificial poppies are sold by the VFW . The poppies are made by disabled veterans through the Buddy Poppy Program. Proceeds of the sales of the flowers go to help the veterans who assemble the flowers.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson and Congress recognized Waterloo, N.Y., as the official birthplace of Decoration Day. Though this announcement did not change the minds of citizens from other cities laying claim to the holiday, it did lay the groundwork for Memorial Day to become a federal holiday.

In 1971, Congress officially declared Memorial Day to be a federal holiday.

On Memorial Day 1984, President Ronald Reagan presided over a funeral service for an unknown soldier killed in Vietnam. He presented the Medal of Honor, and acted as the next of kin during the internment at Arlington National Cemetery. Years later, this soldier who was buried that day would be identified as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC had just been opened the year before, and is among the places that people visit every year on Memorial Day.

In May 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a resolution declaring a national moment of remembrance on Memorial Day every year at 3 p.m. It was enacted so that everyone can pause and remember those who died. Many people felt that Memorial Day had become too commercialized, with people using the day as a chance to hold barbecues and take advantage of retail chain sales instead of honoring those who served and died for the country.

Today, Memorial Day is a day off for many U.S. citizens. Those who observe the holiday do so by attending parades and war memorials. Many people consider it a chance to remember their own families as well; many family reunions are held over the holiday weekend. Volunteers all over the country visit cemeteries to lay flowers at the graves of soldiers, as has been the tradition since the Civil War. This year, take the opportunity to recognize the true meaning of Memorial Day by visiting a memorial or cemetery, and lay a flower down to show your appreciation for those that gave all.


United Stated Department of Veterans Affairs
Veterans of Foreign Wars
Arlington National Cemetery
Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War