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A Look Back: The Origins of Memorial Day

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On May 30, 1868, roughly 5,000 people gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to honor the Civil War soldiers buried there. Ohio Congressman and future president James A. Garfield gave a speech. The Ohioan had served as a major general during the Civil War. Brig. Gen. Halbert E. Paine, who lost his left leg during the war, read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as part of the ceremony. Afterward, attendees decorated the graves of more than 20,000 Civil War soldiers who died during the war. This event was the first national effort to honor U.S. soldiers who died in the service of their country.

Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, initiated it. He issued an order from his headquarters in Washington, D.C., a little more than three weeks before the gathering at Arlington. Logan had a long and distinguished career during the Civil War, rising from colonel to major general. He had been wounded three times during the war and witnessed countless men fall in battle.

A Tradition Begins

There is some debate about who inspired Logan to start this tradition. Some claim his wife observed ceremonies honoring fallen Confederate soldiers in Virginia and gave her husband the idea. Others maintain nurse Martha G. Kimball witnessed this practice, not his wife Mary, and wrote to Logan to suggest it. Another account says an unidentified German Civil War veteran recommended it. In the soldier’s homeland, it was customary to place flowers on the graves of the deceased during the spring. Regardless of who inspired Logan, he initiated what would become over a hundred-year tradition in the U.S.

Around the turn of the century, “Decoration Day” saw two significant changes. By the 1890s, people began to refer to it as “Memorial Day.” Eventually, Memorial Day won out. After WWI, the holiday recognized soldiers of every American war, not just those who died during the Civil War.

Another addition to the holiday was the introduction of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The first unknown soldier, killed during the First World War, was interred at Arlington in 1921. The soldier was recovered from France in November and transported aboard the USS Olympia back to the U.S. An ornate marble sarcophagus was constructed for the unidentified soldier. President Warren G. Harding attended the ceremony surrounding the soldier’s interment. Unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War were later added to the location. These soldiers rest in crypts adjacent to the WWI soldier’s sarcophagus. (A soldier from the Vietnam War was also interred, but was later removed when he was identified.) Since 1921, each American president (or a representative) has placed a wreath at the tomb on Memorial Day.

Making It Official

In 1971, Congress designated Memorial Day a federal holiday. It also shifted the day to the last Monday in May instead of May 30. Most Americans spend the extended weekend taking a trip, going to a parade or barbequing with family and friends. Some of the largest parades are held in Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; and Douglaston, New York. Some individuals visit cemeteries around the country to place small flags or flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers.

“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance,” Logan insisted more than 150 years ago. “Let no vandalism or avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations, that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided Republic.” Would Logan be satisfied with the overall state of these fallen soldiers’ graves? Probably not. Sadly, thousands of their graves have fallen into disrepair. Even worse, many lack tombstones. Take a moment this Memorial Day to remember those who died, especially these forgotten soldiers. We owe it to them.


About Frank Jastrzembski

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Frank Jastrzembski is an associate editor with Delta Defense, LLC. He studied history at John Carroll University (B.A.) and Cleveland State University (M.A.). He’s written dozens of history and travel articles and two books on Victorian officers. He’s also a regular contributor to the blog Emerging Civil War. He runs “Shrouded Veterans,” a nonprofit mission to identify or repair the graves of Mexican War and Civil War veterans.

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