The History of Memorial Day
Across the country, families will gather for Memorial Day for long-held traditions and to honor and remember all those who bravely fought and died to preserve the freedoms we all enjoy.
“There is no higher honor or more solemn privilege than to represent our Nation in paying tribute to its honored dead,” President Ford said on Memorial Day in 1976.
In honor of Memorial Day, the America250 Foundation is sharing some history on the holiday that you may not have known.
The holiday was initially called Decoration Day.
In 1868, following the Civil War, Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic called for a day of remembrance “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.” This led to the term “Decoration Day” mainly being used in the 1800s, however, over time “Memorial Day” took hold.
Freed slaves held one of the earliest observances.
The exact origin of Memorial Day is unknown. Gen. Logan’s call was inspired by local events across the country after the Civil War. One of the earliest observances was held by recently freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1865, a few weeks after the Confederacy surrendered, freed slaves, regiments of the Black troops and some white locals gathered at an old racetrack turned Confederate camp where Union soldiers were held as prisoners of war and died from terrible conditions. Together, the large group sang hymns, laid flowers, and dedicated the site as a cemetery to the “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Over 20 towns in the U.S. claim to be the birthplace.
Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Carbondale, Illinois; Columbus, Mississippi; and Columbus, Georgia are just a few of the U.S. towns that claim to be first to celebrate Memorial Day. However, only one town has federal bragging rights. President Lyndon Johnson signed a proclamation officially labeling Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace in 1966, when 100 years earlier the town closed businesses and gathered for a commemoration of Memorial Day.
Wearing red poppy flowers originated from a WWI poem.
Although the holiday’s history appears to be rooted in the Civil War, Memorial Day extends to all U.S. military members throughout American history. Inspired by a WWI poem, some choose to wear red poppy flowers on Memorial Day. In 1915, Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote the poem, “In Flanders Field,” after seeing bright red poppies grow from the war-torn land across northern France and Belgium, where those killed were buried. McCrae’s poem inspired Moina Michael of Athens, Georgia to write her own, titled “We Shall Keep the Faith,” in an effort to establish the red poppy as a symbol to honor those who died in battle. It is also believed the end of May was selected for the holiday because flowers would be in bloom across the country.
Interested to learn more about our nation’s heroes?
Read about WWI Harlem Hellfighter and Medal of Honor recipient, Sergeant Henry Johnson, who is celebrated in an America250 temporary exhibition at the National WWI Museum and Memorial and an online interactive mosaic.
Read more about one of the first Chinese American women to fly for the United States military during WWII, Hazel Ying Lee.