Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and dates back to Civil War times when ladies in the south would decorate the graves of the fallen. Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service.
General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, first proclaimed Memorial Day on May 5, 1868 in Washington, DC by his General Order No. 11. It was first observed on May 30, 1868 when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war).
General Logan's General Order No 11 reads:
"HEADQUARTERS GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC
General Orders No.11, WASHINGTON, D.C., May 5, 1868
- The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated 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 church-yard in the land. In this observance no
form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way
arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may
We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among
other things, "of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings
which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to
suppress the late rebellion." What can aid more to assure this result than
cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a
barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the
reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of
rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance.
All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their
adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain
defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let
pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond
mourners. Let no vandalism of 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.
If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from hishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation's gratitude, the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.
- It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance
with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the
war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires
the public press to lend its friendly aid in bringing to the notice of comrades
in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.
- Department commanders will use efforts to make this order effective.
By order of
JOHN A. LOGAN,
WM. T. COLLINS, A.A.G."
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Memorial Day is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 - 363) to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays), though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis' birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.
Gee whiz, thank you Congress for making sure that all Federal employees get a three day weekend and for taking away the emphasis of Memorial Day. Well done!
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Traditional observance of Memorial day has diminished over the years. Many Americans nowadays have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored, neglected. Most people no longer remember the proper flag etiquette for the day. While there are towns and cities that still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades. Some people think the day is for honoring any and all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country.
There are a few notable exceptions. Since the late 50's on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing. In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery as an annual Good Turn, a practice that continues to this day. More recently, beginning in 1998, on the Saturday before the observed day for Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of approximately 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye's Heights (the Luminaria Program). And in 2004, Washington D.C. held its first Memorial Day parade in over 60 years.
To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the "National Moment of Remembrance" resolution was passed on Dec 2000 which asks that at 3 p.m. local time, for all Americans "To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to 'Taps."
On January 19, 1999 Senator Inouye introduced bill S 189 to the Senate which proposes to restore the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day back to May 30th instead of "the last Monday in May". On April 19, 1999 Representative Gibbons introduced the bill to the House (H.R. 1474). The bills were referred the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Government Reform.
To date there have been no further developments on the bill although it was reintroduced by Senator Inouye in each sesson of Congress.
I hope that you will join me this Memorial Day by taking time out of your day to research and read about one or more of our Fallen Heroes. It is the least we can do for them and their families.