Originally Published May 19, 2009
“This Memorial Day, on which we decorate their graves with the tokens of love and affection, is no idle ceremony with us, to pass away an hour; but it brings back to our minds in all their vividness the fearful conflicts of that terrible war in which they fell as victims…. Let us, then, all unite in the solemn feelings of the hour, and tender with our flowers the warmest sympathies of our souls! Let us revive our patriotism and love of country by this act, and strengthen our loyalty by the example of the noble dead around us….” General John A. Logan, May 30th, 1870
This was first observed that May 30th in 1968 at Arlington National Cemetery, where members of the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) decorated equally the graves of soldiers from both sides.
The first state to officially adopt this practice as an official state day was New York in 1873. By 1890, it was a recognized day by all the Northern states. The Southern states did not accept this as a day of recognition until World War I, when Memorial Day was expanded to honor the soldiers of every war.
The date for Memorial Day was changed to be the last Monday in May in 1971, as part of the national Holiday Act to make all National Holidays into three day weekends (the exceptions being Christmas and New Years).
Traditional observations from the 1860s and 1870s continue today; many cemeteries have speakers, bands and a non denominational religious service. Some also honor the veterans still living in attendance, as well as recognizing the dead. The G.A.R. continued to decorate the graves of soldiers with small flags, a practice carried on today by veteran’s associations and the organization the G.A.R. became – Sons of Veterans of the United States of America. Other common grave decorations would be garden and wild flowers, as well as branches of pine for remembrance.
Memorial Day became an all day event by the mid 1870s, spawning the current weekend long celebration it has become. Most towns had a parade that led to the cemetery, where speakers, choirs and bands could go on for several hours, and then there was often a town picnic, followed by a baseball game. Today, most cemeteries have an hour to two hour event with speakers and bands, and throughout the community picnics, craft fairs, concerts, baseball games and even fireworks take up the rest of the weekend, not only making it a time of remembrance, but a celebration of our nation.
I have included the full text of General Orders No.11 below:
HEADQUARTERS GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC
General Orders No.11, WASHINGTON, D.C., May 5, 1868
i. 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 permit.
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.
ii. 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.
iii. Department commanders will use efforts to make this order effective.
By order of
JOHN A. LOGAN,
WM. T. COLLINS, A.A.G.