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What Are the Origins of Memorial Day?

The following definition of Decoration Day (aka Memorial Day) appears in Messages and Papers of the Presidents (Bureau of National Literature, 1917).

The custom of strewing flowers on the graves of their dead soldiers early in the spring of each year originated among the women of the South before the close of the Civil War. In some parts of the North a similar custom grew up, but its observance was not universal.

May 5, 1868, while Gen. John A. Logan was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, he issued an order fixing the 30th day of May of that year as a day for the general observance of the custom by members of the Grand Army and their friends. Since that time May 30 had been regularly observed as Decoration Day throughout the country.

It is known as Confederate Memorial Day in the South. The particular days observed there are April 26th in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi and May 10th in North Carolina and South Carolina, while Virginia observes May 30th and Louisiana May 3d (Jefferson Davis' birthday) under this title.

In all states except Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas it is a legal holiday. Congress has by law declared Decoration Day a holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

Although the final Monday of each May is widely celebrated throughout the United States as Memorial Day, there is anything but a consensus on the holiday’s origins. While many agree that Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic’s May 1, 1868 order that his troops place flowers at the graves of soldiers on May 30 th of that year eventually led to the establishment of Memorial Day, there are a number of different theories about the factors influencing his decision.

One of the more popular accounts states that Logan drew inspiration from Southern women who began strewing flowers along the burial sites of deceased Confederate fighting men near the end of the conflict. Other narratives hypothesize that the holiday actually began in Waterloo, New York, citing President Lyndon Johnson’s 1966 declaration that the city is the official birthplace of the holiday. All in all, however, more than two dozen towns and cities claim to have spawned Memorial Day.

These differing accounts are not necessarily contradictory. As David Merchent writes, “it's difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860's tapped into the general human need to honor our dead, each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in Gen Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868.”1 Perhaps, then, each of these different narratives influenced Logan’s order that resulted in the establishment of Memorial Day to honor the deceased veterans of past and current wars. Still, whatever its origins, the final Monday of each May remains a significant date on our national calendar, and that is something that everyone can agree on.

1 David Merchent, “Memorial Day History” (June 1, 2005).

Related Links

  • Alternative Accounts of the History of Memorial Day