Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and it was first celebrated after the Civil War as a way of honoring those who died during that bloody, four year conflict. Dozens of cities and towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, but in May 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo N.Y. as the official birth place of Memorial Day. But the practice of remembering those who died in battle goes back hundreds if not thousands of years.
Even before America was a country, ancient Greeks and Romans held public festivals to honor the dead. The citizens would adorn their loved ones’ graves with flowers and toss food into tombs as offerings to please the spirits of their loved ones. They would feast and dance, wanting the dead to know they were not forgotten. The celebrations were a show of respect but they were also rooted in fear.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans believed a spirit could become a malevolent presence if not properly honored. And those who failed to honor their ancestors with feasting and song risked unleashing hostile spirits into the world who could wreak havoc until appeased. Families were responsible for honoring their loved ones, but those who died in combat became community dead and it became a public responsibility to honor them. After the Peloponnesian war, Pericles, a prominent Greek statesman, gave a public funeral oration for those who died in battle. These memorial festivals became a social obligation and public ritual in Greece and Rome.
In the United States, the social obligation of honoring the dead dates back to the Civil War where casualties on both sides were American. During that bloody conflict, nearly as many men died in captivity as during the entire Vietnam War. And hundreds of thousands died of disease or from lingering infections as the result of minor wounds. In all, around 620,000 men lost their lives in the line of duty, and many of the dead were buried in mass graves.
One such mass grave existed in Charleston, SC where union soldiers were buried in a massive grave outside of a Confederate POW camp.
On May, 1, 1865 former slaves dug up the bodies of 257 dead Union Soldiers buried there. They labored for two weeks to give those brave men who had fought against slavery a proper burial. Afterwards, they placed flowers on the graves and held a parade led by 2,800 Black children who marched and sang to honor those who died.
That same year in Waterloo, NY, a local druggist named Henry C. Welles suggested a social gathering to praise the living veterans of the Civil War while remembering the patriotic dead by placing flowers on their graves. It wasn’t until he mentioned this idea to General John B. Murray, a civil war hero that his idea became a reality.
The notion of praising the dead was accepted wholeheartedly and marshalled veterans’ support. One year later, several communities held celebrations to honor the dead. In the Village of Waterloo, NY flags flew at half-mast and graves were draped with evergreens and mourning black.
Down in the south around March of 1866, a group of Southern ladies from Columbus, Georgia passed a resolution to set aside one day each year to remember the Confederate dead. And April 26, 1866, became the first Memorial Day in the South. However, in the more northern reaches of the South, flowers were not yet in bloom. So, other southern states selected dates later in the spring to celebrate. And near Petersburg, VA, they chose June 9, because of a significant battle fought there. Other Southern States opted for Jefferson Davis’ birthday on June third as they were still annoyed with the North.
Back in the North, the celebrations were held in May and in 1868, Waterloo, NY held a huge public celebration, proclaiming May 30th to be Decoration Day.
Also on May 30, 1868, General James Garfield (who later became our 20th president) spoke before a crowd of 5,000 people gathered at Arlington National Cemetery. The crowd later decorated the graves of over 20,000 dead Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.
Then in 1873, New York became the first state to officially recognize Memorial Day and by 1890, all Northern States officially recognized it as being in May.
It wasn’t until after World War I when the nation finally began to overcome the vast political and economic rifts cause by the Civil War that things change. Memorial Day then became a day to honor all Americans who died fighting in any war. Then in 1971, Congress passed the National Holiday Act officially recognizing the last Monday in May as Memorial Day.
Regardless of who celebrated the first memorial day or where it was celebrated, it became a holiday to celebrate the sacrifice made by over 600,000 men and women on both sides of the bloodiest conflict in American history. Today, we honor men and women who died in service of nation whether they served in the military or as a civilian. Today, we honor soldiers, sailors, the air corps, a marines, civil servants, police, fire, and rescue and anyone who died in defense of this great nation.
So to those who sacrificed all, Thank you.