Today We Celebrate Memorial Day


The origin of Memorial Day is contested. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are 25 cities that vie for credit as the first to celebrate the Americans who died in service of the United States Armed Forces.

In 1966, a Congressional resolution and proclamation by President Lyndon Johnson recognized Waterloo, New York, then holding its 100th celebration, crediting the town for starting the tradition.

Citizens of Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claim their town to be earliest site to observe the holiday; pointing to Emma Hunter, Sophie Keller, and Elizabeth Meyers, who met in October 1864 and shared a bouquet of flowers to decorate the graves of their fallen family members and friends.

A placard in Charleston, South Carolina commemorates a parade held on May 1st, 1865, at a former planter’s racetrack where more than 250 Union prisoners of war, who died primarily of disease, were left in an unmarked mass grave. The crowd “numbered in the thousands, with African American school children from newly formed Freedmen’s Schools leading the parade. They were followed by church leaders, Freedpeople, Unionists, and members of the 54th Mass., 34th, and 104th U.S. Colored Infantries.” The Charlestonians decided to give the dead proper burials by reorganizing the graves, and erecting a protective fence with an archway that read, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”


In Columbus, Georgia, Mary Anne Williams anonymously penned a letter to her local newspapers, requesting that the ladies of the South set aside a day each year for remembrance to decorate the graves of soldiers. The letter was picked up by papers across the South and a tradition took shape.

[W]e can keep alive the memory of debt we owe them by dedicating at least one day in the year, by embellishing their humble graves with flowers, therefore we beg the assistance of the press and the ladies throughout the South to help us in the effort to set apart a certain day to be observed, from the Potomac to the Rio Grande and be handed down through time as a religious custom of the country, to wreathe the graves of our martyred dead with flowers. . . Let the soldiers’ graves, for that day at least, be the Southern Mecca, to whose shrine her sorrowing women, like pilgrims, may annually bring their grateful hearts and floral offerings. . .
– Mary Ann Williams, March 11, 1866

The semi-organized effort to memorialize fallen Confederates gained the attention of General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, who, at an Independence Day gathering of Union soldiers in Salem, Illinois, spoke bitterly of “traitors in the South” who “have their gatherings, day after day, to strew garlands of flowers upon the graves of Rebel soldiers.”

Two years later, in May of 1868, Logan issued a proclamation for the observation of “Decoration Day,” to commemorate those who had fallen to keep the Union intact.

Let us then gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of Springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as a sacred charge upon a Nation’s gratitude—the soldiers’ and sailors’ widow and orphan.
– John A. Logan, May 5, 1868

The first national celebration was held on May 30th of that year at Arlington National Cemetery.

In the century and a half that followed, Confederate soldiers were allowed to be interned in national cemeteries in an attempt to foster North/South reconciliation; the celebration would be renamed “Memorial Day;” and it would be standardized nationally to fall on the last Monday of May.

The great sacrifice of all American lives lost on the battlefield were to be remembered — each of them, without distinction drawn by their rank, the circumstances of demise, nor even by estimation of the merits of the particular conflict that claimed them. They are all to be immortalized for laying down their lives in bold service of the American homeland.


How are you marking the occasion, Ricochetti?

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