Official Birthplace Declared
In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo,
N.Y., the "birthplace" of Memorial Day. There, a ceremony
on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil
War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff.
Supporters of Waterloos claim say earlier observances in
other places were either informal, not community-wide or one-time
By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were
being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures
passed proclamations designating the day. The Army and Navy adopted
regulations for proper observance at their facilities. It was
not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded
to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971 Memorial
Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though
it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed
on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.
Some States Have Confederate Observances
Many Southern states also have their own days for honoring
the Confederate dead. Mississippi celebrates Confederate Memorial
Day the last Monday of April, Alabama on the fourth Monday of
April, and Georgia on April 26. North and South Carolina observe
it May 10, Louisiana on June 3 and Tennessee calls that date Confederate
Decoration Day. Texas celebrates Confederate Heroes Day January
19 and Virginia calls the last Monday in May Confederate Memorial
Gen. Logans order for his posts to decorate graves in
1868 "with the choicest flowers of springtime" urged:
"We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. ...
Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors
and fond mourners. Let no 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."
The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington
National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that
attend todays observance, about 5,000 people. Then, as now,
small American flags were placed on each grave a tradition
followed at many national cemeteries today. In recent years, the
custom has grown in many families to decorate the graves of all
departed loved ones.
The origins of special services to honor those who die in war
can be found in antiquity. The Athenian leader Pericles offered
a tribute to the fallen heroes of the Peloponnesian War over 24
centuries ago that could be applied today to the 1.1 million Americans
who have died in the nations wars: "Not only are they
commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also
an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the
hearts of men."