Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country's armed forces. The holiday, which is observed every year on the last Monday of May, originated as Decoration Day after the American Civil War in 1868, when the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois, established it as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. By the 20th century, competing Union and Confederate holiday traditions, celebrated on different days, had merged, and Memorial Day eventually extended to honor all Americans who died while in the military service.
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The Origins of Memorial Day
Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868,
the head of an organization of Union veterans — the
Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established
Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the
graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A.
Logan declared it should be May 30. It is believed the
date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all
over the country.
The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across
the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The ceremonies centered around the
mourning- draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E.
Lee. Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided
over the ceremonies. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan
Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers
on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.
Local Observances Claim To Be First
Local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead already had been held in various places.
One of the first occurred in Columbus, Miss., April 25, 1866, when a group of women
visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in
battle at Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they
were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of
their flowers on those graves, as well. Today, cities in the North and the South claim to
be the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1866. Both Macon and Columbus, Ga., claim the
title, as well as Richmond, Va. The village of Boalsburg, Pa., claims it began there two
years earlier. A stone in a Carbondale, Ill., cemetery carries the statement that the first
Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866. Carbondale was the
wartime home of Gen. Logan. Approximately 25 places have been named in connection
with the origin of Memorial Day, many of th