Decoration Day & The Origins Of Memorial Day


Approximately 2% of the population, an estimated 620,000 men, lost their lives during the Civil War due to combat, accidents, starvation, and disease. Such carnage led to the creation of the country’s first national cemeteries, beginning in 1862. In the years following the end of hostilities, people in the North and South had begun holding tributes to honor the dead, decorating their graves with flowers and flags.

Southern Traditions – Memorial Day

As early as 1866, people of the South had enacted an annual practice of commemorating the “Lost Cause” and those who sacrificed their lives in its pursuit. Across the South, associations were founded, mostly by wealthy white women, to establish and care for Confederate cemeteries, intern soldiers, and raise monuments in their honor. One such organization, the Ladies Memorial Association, is largely credited for playing an instrumental role in the development of the annual Memorial Day custom. In addition, many of the cemeteries and monuments for Confederate soldiers seen today can be attributed to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.


Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira, New York.

Two notable “Memorial Day” events took place in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865 and in Columbus, Mississippi on April 25, 1866. In Charleston, nearly 10,000 people, mostly freed black residents, gathered on May 1 to commemorate Union soldiers who had died while imprisoned in Charleston. Many in attendance brought flowers to decorate the cemetery.

Image featured in an 1881 issue of Harper's Weekly of a "History Lesson on Decoration Day."

Image featured in an 1881 issue of Harper’s Weekly of a “A Lesson In History – Decoration Day.”

In Columbus, local women organized an event to decorate the graves of both the Union and Confederate dead that were interned in the city’s cemetery – Friendship Cemetery. During the Civil War, Columbus served as a hospital town, with many of the wounded being soldiers from the Battle of Shiloh.

Decoration Day at Friendship Cemetery in Columbus Mississippi.

Decoration Day at Friendship Cemetery in Columbus Mississippi.

In 1868, people in the North began to embrace many of the same customs; even calling their commemoration events the same name, “Memorial Day.” Still a little sore from defeat and fiercely independent, the people of the South quickly changed the name of their commemoration events to Confederate Memorial Day.

1879 commemoration event at Antietam National Cemetery.

1879 commemoration event at Antietam National Cemetery.

Northern Traditions – Decoration Day

On May 5, 1868, General John Logan, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a veterans’ organization for Union Civil War veterans, called for the creation of “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide. 25 days later, on Saturday May 30, Decoration Day was observed for the first time. The date had nothing to do with a particular battle; instead, it was deemed to be the peak time for flowers to be in bloom.

Decoration Day themed Grand Army of the Republic post cards.

Decoration Day themed Grand Army of the Republic post cards.

In his General Order No. 11., General  Logan proclaimed: “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 during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.


General John Logan, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (Left). Women with daisies in preparation for Decoration Day, 1899 (Right).

As was the case in the South, the women of the North took a leading role in the development of commemoration events. The 100k member-strong women’s auxiliary arm of GAR, the Women’s Relief Corps, sponsored commemoration ceremonies with great effect. So much so, that by 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries, mostly across the South where most of the war was fought.

A Unified Day of Commemoration

Northern states continued the practice of observing Decoration Day each year, on May 30. By 1890, each state had made the day an official state holiday. The South on the other hand, continued to commemorate their dead on different days and on their own terms up until World War I. Finding itself in another violent conflict, the North and South came together to commemorate all American military personnel, from every conflict, who lost their lives in war.

Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30 until 1968, when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This made the Memorial Day an official federal holiday and moved its observance to the last Monday in May. Why mess with tradition you might ask? To create a three-day weekend for government employees of course! The change went into effect in 1971.

Did You Know? In 1966, by presidential proclamation, President Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. First celebrated on May 5, 1866, Waterloo was chosen because it hosted an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags. Despite this designation, there is still a heated debate as to which town deserves credit for being the birthplace of Memorial Day.

Modern Day Traditions

This Memorial Day, towns across America; small and large, will host parades featuring military veterans and service personnel. Festivals, parties, and barbecue have also become synonymous with the holiday. Tradition has not escaped us though, as many will visit national cemeteries and memorials to clean and decorate the graves of the fallen and pay their respects to those that fought and died for our country.

On Memorial Day, the U.S. flag is quickly raised to full-staff, and then slowly lowered to half-staff, where it stays until noon. This is done in remembrance of all who have given their lives in service of their country. At noon, the flag is raised back to full-staff to show that their sacrifice was not in vein and that we will continue to fight for liberty.  

From all of us here at RelicRecord.com, we remain indebted to all of the men and women who’ve paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect the freedoms we all enjoy. Thank You.


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