I remember my grandmother always referred to this day as Decoration Day. When I was a child, nobody ever told me why she called it that. That is a shame.
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day because the day was designated as a day to decorate the graves of soldiers who had died in the Civil War.
Many people in the North and the South decorated graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and many cities claim to be the location that the first Decoration Day ceremony took place.
In the summer of 1865, a prominent druggist in the village of Waterloo, New York, Henry C. Welles, mentioned to some of his friends that it would be good to remember the patriotic dead of the war by placing flowers on their graves. He suggested that all the shops in town close for one day to honor the soldiers who were killed in the Civil War and were buried in the Waterloo cemetery.
Nothing resulted from his suggestion until he gave the idea again the following spring to the Seneca County Clerk, General John B. Murray. Murray, a Civil War hero, embraced the idea wholeheartedly and a citizens’ committee headed by Welles and Murray was formed to plan a day devoted to honoring the dead.
On May 5, 1866, the Village was decorated with flags at half mast, draped with evergreens and mourning black. Veterans, civic societies and residents, led by General Murray, marched to the strains of martial music to the three village cemeteries. There, impressive ceremonies were held and soldiers’ graves decorated. One year later, on May 5, 1867, the ceremonies were repeated. In 1868, Waterloo joined with other communities in holding their observance on May 30th. It has been held annually ever since.
During the same time period, the head of an organization of Union veterans—the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)—established May 30th as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Retired Major General Jonathan A. Logan led veterans through town to the cemetery to decorate their comrades’ graves with flags. It was not a happy celebration, but a memorial. The townspeople called it Decoration Day.
In Retired Major General Logan’s proclamation in General Order #11 on May 5, 1868, he declared:
“The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country and during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that attend today’s observance, about 5,000 people. Then, as now, small American flags were placed on each grave — a tradition followed at many national cemeteries today.
The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.
In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed Waterloo the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966, 100 years after the first commemoration. They chose Waterloo—which had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866—because the town had made Memorial Day an annual, community-wide event.
Every May 30, the townspeople of Waterloo still walk to the cemeteries and hold memorial services. They decorate the graves with flags and flowers. Then they walk back to the park in the middle of town. In the middle of the park, near a monument dedicated to soldiers, sailors and marines, the Gettysburg address is read, followed by General Logan’s Order # 11 designating Decoration Day. The village choirs sing patriotic songs. In the evening, school children take part in a parade.
By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day, and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.
It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May.
To ensure the sacrifices of America ’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act.”
The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.
Whether or not you remember at precisely 3 o’clock to take a moment of remembrance is not as important as the fact that you know what the day is about. It is a day to remember those who gave their lives so that you have the freedom to do whatever is happening in your lives at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day and every day. It might also be a good idea to tell your children what the day is really all about. It would be a shame if they weren’t told.