The Nation’s Sacrifice: The Origins and Evolution of Memorial Day

Today’s post comes from John P. Blair with the National Archives History Office.

Public Law 90-363 Monday Holidays
Uniform Monday Holiday Act, June 28, 1968. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives)

On May 28, 2018, our nation observes a federal holiday—Memorial Day—that was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on June 28, 1968, to take effect on January 1, 1971.

Yes, officially Memorial Day as a legal national holiday is only 50 years old.  The tradition, however, is much, much older and one that has developed over the last 200+ years.

Today I am exploring some of the history of the actual day, its original purpose, who was involved, some of the controversies over its founding, and how it has evolved.

John Alexander Logan is today credited with establishing Memorial Day. A Democrat from Illinois, Logan resigned his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1862 to volunteer to serve in the U.S. Army. He served with Michigan troops at the First Battle of Bull Run before returning to Illinois to raise a regiment of infantry.

Elected its colonel, Logan led the 31st Illinois through major battles in Missouri and Tennessee, where he was severely wounded at Fort Donelson. Logan recovered and returned to a promotion as brigadier general of the XVII Corps, Army of the Tennessee.

A year later he was commanding an entire division and continued to lead with distinction at Vicksburg and during the Atlanta campaign. In 1864, Logan, still a Democrat, took leave to campaign for Lincoln’s reelection.

General John Alexander Logan, photograph by Mathew Brady, ca. 1865. (National Archives Identifier 529374)

When the war ended, Major General Logan, now the commanding officer of the entire Army of the Tennessee, had the privilege of leading his men in the Grand Review at Washington, DC, in May 1865.

There is no doubt that Logan personally witnessed the horrors of war, the wounded, the dying, the suffering, and the widows and the children who no longer had fathers.  

Returning to politics, now as a Republican, Logan was reelected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving until 1871, when he became a U.S. Senator.

Logan became the first Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a Union veterans group formed to perpetuate the memory of those who sacrificed their lives in defense of the republic and to preserve and strengthen the bonds formed during the war between its survivors.

On May 5, 1868, Logan issued “General Orders No. 11” to the members of the GAR. In it, he designates May 30, 1868, as the day for the “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.” Logan also expressed his wish that the observance should “be kept up year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades.”

Later that month, on May 30, 1868, members of the GAR, other surviving veterans, members of their families, the widows and children of those lost in the war, politicians, and others gathered at Arlington Cemetery, where legions of volunteers had created floral arrangements from many of the public gardens around the District of Columbia for the thousands buried there.

President Andrew Johnson directed that “those employed in the several Executive Departments of the Government to unite with their fellow-citizens in paying a fitting tribute to the memory of the brave men.”

While the program took place at Arlington, people across the local area placed flowers and flags on graves. Reportedly, GAR members in 17 states across the nation observed this solemn day.  

Support for claiming this as the first unofficial “Memorial Day” rests on Logan’s order designating May 30 as the day for decorating the graves of the fallen, his call for all GAR members around the country to participate, and his “hope” that they continue the practice as long as veterans from the war were alive to remember their comrades. On this basis, Logan can be considered the founder of Memorial Day, yet there are additional views about who should get credit as the originator of this annual observance.

Let’s look at a few notable contenders.    

Martha G. Kimball, the wife of Henry Spofford Kimball, wrote to General Logan in 1867 from her home in Philadelphia after a visit through the southern United States. Kimball noted her observations of “southern women decorating the graves of their dead, fallen in battle” and suggested that “he [Logan] should have our heroic soldiers whose lonely graves are, many unmarked, remembered in the same beautiful way.”

Therefore, Martha Kimball should be given some credit towards the founding of Memorial Day; yet she, as did Logan, sought only to commemorate the service of Union veterans. As did Henry Carter Welles and John Boyce Murray.  Who were they?

Welles, a local druggist at Waterloo, NY, suggested that a day should be set aside to honor the dead of the Civil War. This sentiment was shared with Murray, the clerk of Seneca County. Murray, the former commanding officer of the 148th Regiment of New York Volunteers, soon became the driving force behind what the city of Waterloo claims as the first Memorial Day celebration, held May 5, 1866.

House Concurrent Resolution recognizing Waterloo, NY, as the birthplace of Memorial Day, May 17, 1966. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives)

In 1966 this claim was made official when Congress passed Joint Resolution 587, declaring Waterloo as “the birthplace of Memorial Day.” Yet, again, this day was only for the honoring and decorating the graves of Union veterans. While Waterloo now has official claim to the first Memorial Day, other communities continue to challenge that claim, including Columbus, GA.

The Ladies Memorial Association formed in Columbus with the goal to provide for decent burials of the Confederate dead. The corresponding secretary, Mary Ann Williams, wrote a letter calling for one day each year to be set aside for decorating soldiers’ graves.

Since newspapers from Columbia, SC, to Boston and New York picked up this story, some assert that this was the first national call for a Memorial Day. And when the ladies of Columbus decorated graves on April 26, 1866, they claimed to be the first to observe the day. As in the North, who only decorated Union graves, these ladies only decorated the graves of Confederate veterans. When did this truly become a “national” observance?

Sue Langdon Adams, the daughter of Mississippi Senator Robert Adams, when hearing the news of the April 25, 1865, truce ending the war, reportedly wrote a note to the local paper at Jackson asking for women to gather the next day to decorate the graves of their fallen soldiers.

As Union troops marched through the cemetery on the following day, Adams noticed that some graves had no flowers, which turned out to be federal troops. With the placement of flowers on these additional graves, Adams, on April 26, perhaps initiated the first Memorial Day.

Again, it was only for veterans of the American Civil War. When did our “modern” Memorial Day begin?

Decoration Day by Clifford K. Berryman, 5/30/1911. (National Archives Identifier 6010891)

We all must remember in these early years that our nation had just experienced the bloodiest, most devastating conflict in its history. The U.S. Civil War had an impact on the lives of just about every American in some way.

These days of decoration and remembrance occurred only days or years after the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House. Federal troops still occupied the Southern states, racial and political violence inflamed the region, and sectional tensions continued to simmer.

The end of the War with Spain in 1898 initiated another veterans group, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the end of World War I saw the formation of the American Legion.

The custom of using Memorial Day to honor all American veterans who gave their lives in sacrifice to our nation did not become commonplace until after World War I. By the mid-20th century it became commonplace for Presidents to issue Memorial Day Proclamations to honor those who have given their lives on the field of battle. Today, some people even honor all veterans who are no longer with us, whether that death took place during conflict or not.

As we recognize our freedom to attend our church of choice (or not to attend), to express our opinions or gather to discuss our beliefs and values, to be able to read the exchange of information openly in the press, to be able to defend ourselves and to understand that we have a system of justice, it is important to acknowledge that those freedoms are ours because of the many men, women, and families who stepped forward to defend them, and in that service, sacrificed their lives for us. Memorial Day is for them, all of them. It is our duty to remember the gift they have given us.

Visit the National Archives website for more information and related resources on Memorial Day.

Small American Flags adorn over 17,000 graves at the Beaufort National Cemetery as tribute to the fallen heroes that lay in peace remembered and honored during the Memorial Day Ceremony at Beaufort, South Carolina, 5/31/2004. (National Archives Identifier 6665634)


2 thoughts on “The Nation’s Sacrifice: The Origins and Evolution of Memorial Day

  1. Thank you for your review and recording the stories of individuals, over time, who joined efforts from different parts of our fine land. Their unselfish efforts gave us the Memorial Day we celebrate today. Your unselfish efforts brought tears to my eyes to witness the love of country evidenced throughout. Sincere thanks!???❤️?

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