Memorial Day began as Civil War remembrance

DOVER — April 9 marked the sesquicentennial of the surrender of the Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Union Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, signaling the end of the Civil War in 1865.

One battle, however, remains contested long after the guns have fallen silent: Where did Memorial Day originate?

Some two dozen places claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, once known as Decoration Day and originally aimed as a day of remembrance for those who died during the Civil War, fought between the Northern and Southern states between 1861 and 1865.

President Lyndon Johnson gave Waterloo, New York, the official edge when he designated it the birthplace in May 1966.

Even www.usmemorialday.org admits the location is difficult to prove.

Thomas Summers, manager of Outreach Services at the Delaware Public Archives, believes the bill making Memorial Day a state holiday in 1889 came about as part of a national campaign. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

Thomas Summers, manager of Outreach Services at the Delaware Public Archives, believes the bill making Memorial Day a state holiday in 1889 came about as part of a national campaign. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)


The Civil War Trust, a nonprofit preservation organization, estimates 620,000 men died in the war.

Waterloo’s claim is traced to Gen. John Logan, the national commander of the post-war Union veterans’ organization known as the Grand Army of the Republic. In 1868 he declared May 30 of that year to be a day when the “choicest flowers of spring” should be placed on the graves of those who died in service to the Union.

“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance,” Gen. Logan wrote in his order, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website.

An earlier 1866 ceremony in Waterloo that honored the town’s Civil War veterans may have inspired the general.

Among other sites making claims to be the birthplace is Columbus, Mississippi. The story goes that on April 25, 1866, women decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen at the Battle of Shiloh, fought in Tennessee April 6-7, 1862. The women, moved by the sight of neglected Union graves, also placed flowers on those, in recognition that they, too, were somebody’s sons, brothers and husbands.

Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1971 and was moved to the last Monday in May. The commemoration expanded to cover all who died in all American wars after World War I, which ended in 1918.
Regardless of where the idea of remembering the war dead originated, the commemoration resonated across the land.

New York was the first state to declare May 30 as a holiday, in 1873, and by 1890 most Northern states followed its lead.

Delaware’s General Assembly designated May 30, 1889, to be a “Memorial day.” (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

Delaware’s General Assembly designated May 30, 1889, to be a “Memorial day.” (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

On April 10, 1889, Delaware’s General Assembly passed an enrolled bill, meaning it didn’t have to be signed by the governor, declaring “Memorial day” to be a legal holiday.

“Whereas, the thirtieth day of May is now universally recognized through the United States as a day which ought to be observed as a ‘Memorial Occasion’ …,” the bill begins. Its large cursive writing covers almost three pages.

Thomas Summers, manager of Outreach Services at the Delaware Public Archives, believes the bill came about as part of a national campaign.

The day evolved in Delaware as community commemorations, he said, with individual towns marking the day with ceremonies, wreath layings and parades.

And while it was born from a war that ended 150 years ago, Memorial Day continues to be meaningful today, Mr. Summers said.

“Recent events of the last 20 years, the Iraqi wars, makes us more aware of citizen sacrifices for America,” he said.

“It’s a time to think about the people who gave their lives so we can live the lives we live.”

Email comments to newsroom@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment