Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was borne out of the Civil War as a desire to honor the dead. On May 5, 1868, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic General John Logan officially proclaimed the 30th of May as Decoration Day. General Logan designated this day for the purpose of decorating the graves of those who died in defense of their country during the Civil War. May 30th was not chosen for any particular battle, but instead because General Logan believed by this day flowers would be in bloom all over the country, thus making the celebration as beautiful as it could be. Though Decoration Day was created by the Union, General Logan recognized the Civil War left “no city, village, or hamlet churchyard” untouched, with bodies of fallen soldiers buried across the Union and former Confederacy. General Logan’s proclamation intended to invite citizens across the reunified United States to decorate all graves, regardless of army affiliation.
The origins of the first Decoration Day are a mystery, with many cities claiming to be the first to decorate the graves of their dead. The first state to formally recognize Decoration Day was New York in 1873, and in 1966 President Johnson declared Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of the holiday. At the first Decoration Day celebration in 1868, General James Garfield addressed a crowd of 5,000 people, saying “If silence is ever golden, it must be here, beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung.” General Garfield and those in attendance then decorated the graves of the 15,000-20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. By 1890 all northern states had officially recognized the holiday, while the South refused to acknowledge the day. Southern states choose to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I. With political distinctions between North and South less divisive, coupled with the sheer scope of the Great War’s devastation, Decoration Day changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring all Americans who died fighting in any war.
It was not until the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, enacted in 1971, that Memorial Day became the three-day weekend we enjoy today. The purpose of the Uniform Holiday Act was to move certain federal holidays from fixed dates to designated Mondays to increase the number of three-day weekends for federal workers. Other holidays listed in this act are Washington’s Birthday, Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Veteran’s Day (which was later returned to November 11th).
Memorial Day is often associated with the symbol of a red poppy, made popular by YWCA employee Moina Michael who was inspired by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields.” Ms. Michael pinned a silk poppy to her coat and distributed the pins out to coworkers and friends. In 1920 the American Foreign Legion adopted the poppy as their official symbol. In 1922, the VFW became the first veteran’s organization to nationally sell poppies.
General Logan said in his 1868 proclamation, “if other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remains in us.” Even though the details may fade as we march further and further from the past, the memory of our fallen heroes still burns bright every Memorial Day. As long as the passion for freedom continues within us, we honor all those who died fighting for it before us.