From Decoration Day to Memorial Day – Who started it all?

About two dozen places across the country claim to have originated Memorial Day–once called Decoration Day–but three stories stand out among the rest.

From Decoration Day to Memorial Day- Who started it all?

By Diane Euston

Cover Photo: Decoration Day, 1899- Courtesy of Library of Congress

 As people prepare for a three-day weekend filled with barbecues, picnics and displaying the American flag on houses, the true history of the holiday known today as Memorial Day is clouded in controversy. Just like with so many holidays celebrated in the United States, the true origin of this patriotic holiday is debated.

 No one doubts that the origin of Memorial Day began with the creation of Decoration Day after the Civil War when thousands of soldiers were buried where they fell. Around 620,000 men died during the Civil War- more than all other wars through the Korean conflict combined. The bodies of more soldiers that can be counted from both sides of this war were first interred, on most occasions, far away from their homes. Memorializing these makeshift graves was a problem both logistically and spiritually.

 According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, about two dozen places across the country claim to be the origin of this holiday, but three stories stand out among the rest.

The North- Waterloo, NY

 From 1868 to 1970, Memorial Day was customarily celebrated on May 30. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y. the official birthplace of Memorial Day. The community had started taking off work May 5, 1866 to decorate the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags. Today, this declaration of the beginning of the holiday is labeled a myth.

Maj. Gen. John A. Logan- cir. 1860-1865. Courtesy of Library of Congress

 Decoration Day was officially recognized as a national holiday when commander-in-chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union Civil War vets, saw fit to pay honor to those who died “in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” May 30, 1868, was the first declared Decoration Day with a celebration at Arlington National Cemetery.

The South- Columbus, MS

 During the Civil War, the town of Columbus, Ms., had a population of about 6,000 people. A nearby rail line caused the town to receive many casualties of the war. At Friendship Cemetery, 2,500 Confederate soldiers after the Battle of Shiloh were said to be buried there along with a few Union casualties.

 In April, 1866, four women in Columbus began decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers. They felt it important to also honor the soldiers from both sides as an homage to reconciliation and healing. In many parts of the country, this is the accepted story to the origin of Memorial Day.

The African American Contribution

 More recently, a story has emerged that questions the origin of Memorial Day. David W. Blight, a Yale University history professor, found accounts of an early celebration that involved African Americans commemorating fallen Union soldiers on May 1, 1865.

 Thousands of blacks, some former slaves of the south, gathered at a race track known as the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, SC. During the war, it had become an outdoor prison for Union soldiers held by the Confederacy. The conditions at this prison were deplorable, and at least 250 Union men were buried there. Without any orders to do so, a group of black men dug these men up out of their mass grave and gave them a proper burial, including placing a fence along the cemetery.

 To commemorate this occasion, 10,000 people, including the white community, hosted a parade on May 1, 1865. Around 3,000 black school children followed black women “with baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses” into the new cemetery. The Union infantry was present, including “the famous 54th Massachusetts and 104th U.S. Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.”

 This event, spawned by African Americans, is earlier than any other recorded Decoration Day event. David W. Blight explained, “Pride and place as the first large scale ritual of Decoration Day goes to African Americans in Charleston.”

Decoration Day, 1883. Courtesy Library of Congress

Memorial Day Celebrations Today

 This area joined the national movement to honor the fallen soldiers of the Civil War with the rest of the country. The Liberty Tribune reported after Memorial Day in 1870, “Decoration Day has been generally observed throughout the north and south- -the graves of the Union and Confederate dead being decorated with flowers.”

 Initially designed to decorate Civil War veterans’ graves, Memorial Day morphed into decoration of all fallen soldiers’ graves after World War I. Celebrated originally on May 30, it wasn’t until 1971 when Congress declared the last Monday in May as the celebration for Memorial Day.

 What began as a tribute to both sides of a war that almost tore the country apart has now become a celebration of memorial for all that have passed. No matter its origin, Memorial Day is a time to pay homage to the past and welcome summertime across the country.

Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to

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