Updated: May 30, 2021
The first official nationwide Memorial Day was observed May 30, 1868. While the exact origins of this holiday are uncertain, it seems to have come out of Civil War traditions of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. On May 5, 1868 General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for a Decoration Day to be observed annually and nationwide. He was the commander-in-chief of the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic). It is believed that the first soldier's grave to be decorated was that of John Quincy Marr, a soldier of the Confederacy, who is purported to be the first soldier killed in action during the Civil War. He was killed June 1, 1861 in the battle of Fairfax Court House in Virginia and his grave was "decorated" at his funeral on June 3 of that year. The two World Wars turned Decoration Day into a generalized day of remembrance for all fallen soldiers. But it wasn't until 1971 that Congress standardized the holiday as "Memorial Day," thus changing its observance. It appears that women began the practice of honoring fallen soldiers by decorating their graves and this had become a wide-spread practice throughout the South long before the end of the Civil War. The United States Park Service attributes the beginning of the practice to a group of women in Columbus, Georgia. These ladies had established a group called the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, and spear-headed by their secretary, Mary Ann Williams, they wrote a letter to the press in March of 1866 asking for assistance in establishing an annual holiday to decorate the graves of soldiers throughout the south. This letter was reprinted in several Southern states and was noted by some in the North. The first date this was observed was April 26,1866, where it was observed in most of the major cities of the South. In Virginia, especially, though, it was usually observed in May or June. After General Logan's 1868 proclamation, northern states quickly adopted the practice and in 1868, memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states, and 336 in 1869. While one author claims the May 30 date to have been adopted because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle, others say it was adopted because it was an optimal date for flowers to bloom in the North. When I was a child I knew this holiday as Decoration Day. It was the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1967 that officially changed the name to Memorial Day and set the yearly date for its observance to the last Monday in May. Not surprisingly, there was some initial unwillingness to comply with this change of name and date, but within a few years all 50 dates had adopted it. Some other trivia about Memorial Day: 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. In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, asking people to stop and remember at 3:00 pm. Two years ago on Memorial Day I went to the National Cemetery in Knoxville where my husband is buried. I was there at 3:00 PM when the period of remembrance was, in fact, observed. It was a very moving experience which I can highly recommend to anyone who really wants to experience the real meaning of this holiday.