On June 3, 1861, Warrenton, Virginia was the location of the first Civil War soldier's grave to be decorated, according to an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1906. This decoration was for the funeral of the first soldier killed during the Civil War, John Quincy Marr, who died on June 1, 1861, during a skirmish at the Battle of Fairfax Courthouse in Virginia.
On July 4, 1864, ladies decorated soldiers' graves according to local historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Boalsburg promotes itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day. However, no published reference to this event has been found earlier than the printing of the History of the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1904. In a footnote to a story about her brother, Mrs. Sophie (Keller) Hall described how she and Emma Hunter decorated the grave of Emma's father, Reuben Hunter, and then the graves of all soldiers in the cemetery. The original story did not account for Reuben Hunter's death occurring two months later on September 19, 1864. It also did not mention Mrs. Elizabeth Myers as one of the original participants. However, a bronze statue of all three women gazing upon Reuben Hunter's grave now stands near the entrance to the Boalsburg Cemetery. Although July 4, 1864, was a Monday, the town now claims that the original decoration was on one of the Sundays in October 1864.
In April 1865, following Lincoln's assassination, commemorations were extensive. The more than 600,000 soldiers of both sides who fought and died in the Civil War meant that burial and memorialization took on new cultural significance. Under the leadership of women during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had taken shape. In 1865, the federal government also began creating the United States National Cemetery System for the Union war dead.
The National Cemetery Administration, a division of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and scholars attribute the beginning of a Memorial Day practice in the South to a group of women of Columbus, Georgia. The women were the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus. They were represented by Mary Ann Williams (Mrs. Charles J. Williams) who as association secretary wrote an open letter to the press on March 11, 1866 asking for assistance in establishing an annual holiday to decorate the graves of soldiers throughout the South. The letter was reprinted in several southern states and the plans were noted in newspapers in the North. The date of April 26 was chosen, which corresponded with the end date of the war with the surrender agreement between Generals Johnston and Sherman in 1865. The holiday was observed in Atlanta, Augusta, Macon, Columbus and elsewhere in Georgia as well as Montgomery, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; Louisville, Kentucky; New Orleans, Louisiana; Jackson, Mississippi, and across the South. In some cities, mostly in Virginia, other dates in May and June were observed. General John Logan commented on the observances in a speech to veterans on July 4, 1866, in Salem, Illinois. After General Logan's General Order No. 11 to the Grand Army of the Republic to observe May 30, 1868, the earlier version of the holiday began to be referred to as Confederate Memorial Day.
On April 26, 1865, in Jackson, Mississippi, Sue Landon Vaughan decorated the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers according to her account. The first reference to this event however did not appear until many years later. Mention of the observance is inscribed on the southeast panel of the Confederate Monument in Jackson, erected in 1891. Vaughan's account is contradicted by contemporary sources.
On May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, the recently freed Black population held a parade of 10,000 people to honor 257 dead Union soldiers. The soldiers had been buried in a mass grave at the Washington Race Course, having died at the Confederate prison camp located there. After the city fell, the freed Black population unearthed and properly buried the soldiers, placing flowers at their graves. The event was reported contemporaneously in the Charleston Daily Courier and the New-York Tribune. Historian David Blight has called this commemoration the first Memorial Day. However, no direct link has been established between this event and General John Logan's 1868 proclamation for a national holiday.
—Mary Ann Williams, March 11, 1866
In unison with the Mary William's call for assistance, four women of Columbus, Mississippi a day early on April 25, 1866 gathered together at Friendship Cemetery to decorate the graves of the Confederate soldiers. They also felt moved to honor the Union soldiers buried there, and to note the grief of their families, by decorating their graves as well. The story of their gesture of humanity and reconciliation is held by some writers as the inspiration of the original Memorial Day.
In 1868, some Southern public figures began adding the label "Confederate" to their commemorations and claimed that Northerners had appropriated the holiday. The first official celebration of Confederate Memorial Day as a public holiday occurred in 1874, following a proclamation by the Georgia legislature. By 1916, ten states celebrated it, on June 3, the birthday of CSA President Jefferson Davis. Other states chose late April dates, or May 10, commemorating Davis' capture.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for "Decoration Day" to be observed annually and nationwide; he was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of and for Union Civil War veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois. With his proclamation, Logan adopted the Memorial Day practice that had begun in the Southern states two years earlier. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday. In 1868, memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states, and 336 in 1869. One author claims that the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. Logan's wife noted that the date was chosen because it was the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom in the North.
—John A. Logan, May 5, 1868
The first national observance of Memorial Day occurred on May 30, 1868. Then known as Decoration Day, the holiday was proclaimed by Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic to honor the Union soldiers who had died in the Civil War. This national observance was preceded by many local ones between the end of the Civil War and Logan's declaration. Many cities and people have claimed to be the first to observe it. However, the National Cemetery Administration, a division of the Department of Veterans Affairs, credits Mary Ann Williams with originating the "idea of strewing the graves of Civil War soldiers—Union and Confederate" with flowers.
In 1873, New York made Decoration Day an official state holiday and by 1890, every northern state had followed suit. There was no standard program for the ceremonies, but they were typically sponsored by the Women's Relief Corps, the women's auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which had 100,000 members. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries, located near major battlefields and thus mainly in the South. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington, D.C.
Official recognition as a holiday spread among the states, beginning with New York in 1873. By 1890, every Union state had adopted it. The world wars turned it into a day of remembrance for all members of the U.S. military who fought and died in service. In 1971, Congress standardized the holiday as "Memorial Day" and changed its observance to the last Monday in May.
The name "Memorial Day", which was first attested in 1882, gradually became more common than "Decoration Day" after World War II but was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971.
In 1913, one Indiana veteran complained that younger people born since the war had a "tendency ... to forget the purpose of Memorial Day and make it a day for games, races, and revelry, instead of a day of memory and tears". Indeed, in 1911 the scheduling of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway car race (later named the Indianapolis 500) was vehemently opposed by the increasingly elderly GAR. The state legislature in 1923 rejected holding the race on the holiday. But the new American Legion and local officials wanted the big race to continue, so Governor Warren McCray vetoed the bill and the race went on.
In the national capital in 1913 the four-day "Blue-Gray Reunion" featured parades, re-enactments, and speeches from a host of dignitaries, including President Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner elected to the White House since the War. James Heflin of Alabama gave the main address. Heflin was a noted orator; his choice as Memorial Day speaker was criticized, as he was opposed for his support of segregation; however, his speech was moderate in tone and stressed national unity and goodwill, gaining him praise from newspapers.
In 1915, following the Second Battle of Ypres, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a physician with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, wrote the poem "In Flanders Fields". Its opening lines refer to the fields of poppies that grew among the soldiers' graves in Flanders. Inspired by the poem, YWCA worker Moina Michael attended a YWCA Overseas War Secretaries' conference three years later wearing a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed over two dozen more to others present. The National American Legion adopted in 1920 the poppy as its official symbol of remembrance.
On May 26, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson designated an "official" birthplace of the holiday by signing the presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, New York, as the holder of the title. This action followed House Concurrent Resolution 587, in which the 89th Congress had officially recognized that the patriotic tradition of observing Memorial Day had begun one hundred years prior in Waterloo, New York. The legitimacy of this claim has been called into question by several scholars.
In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, asking people to stop and remember at 3:00 pm. On Memorial Day, the flag of the United States is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon. It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day. The National Memorial Day Concert takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol.
Memorial Day endures as a holiday which most businesses observe because it marks the unofficial beginning of summer. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) advocated returning to the original date. The VFW stated in 2002: