What Are the Origins of Memorial Day?

History Q & A

Mr. Bowden is a junior at the University of Iowa studying history and secondary education and an HNN intern.

The following definition of Decoration Day (aka Memorial Day) appears in Messages and Papers of the Presidents (Bureau of National Literature, 1917).

The custom of strewing flowers on the graves of their dead soldiers early in the spring of each year originated among the women of the South before the close of the Civil War. In some parts of the North a similar custom grew up, but its observance was not universal.

May 5, 1868, while Gen. John A. Logan was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, he issued an order fixing the 30th day of May of that year as a day for the general observance of the custom by members of the Grand Army and their friends. Since that time May 30 had been regularly observed as Decoration Day throughout the country.

It is known as Confederate Memorial Day in the South. The particular days observed there are April 26th in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi and May 10th in North Carolina and South Carolina, while Virginia observes May 30th and Louisiana May 3d (Jefferson Davis' birthday) under this title.

In all states except Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas it is a legal holiday. Congress has by law declared Decoration Day a holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

Although the final Monday of each May is widely celebrated throughout the United States as Memorial Day, there is anything but a consensus on the holiday’s origins. While many agree that Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic’s May 1, 1868 order that his troops place flowers at the graves of soldiers on May 30 th of that year eventually led to the establishment of Memorial Day, there are a number of different theories about the factors influencing his decision.

One of the more popular accounts states that Logan drew inspiration from Southern women who began strewing flowers along the burial sites of deceased Confederate fighting men near the end of the conflict. Other narratives hypothesize that the holiday actually began in Waterloo, New York, citing President Lyndon Johnson’s 1966 declaration that the city is the official birthplace of the holiday. All in all, however, more than two dozen towns and cities claim to have spawned Memorial Day.

These differing accounts are not necessarily contradictory. As David Merchent writes, “it's difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860's tapped into the general human need to honor our dead, each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in Gen Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868.”1 Perhaps, then, each of these different narratives influenced Logan’s order that resulted in the establishment of Memorial Day to honor the deceased veterans of past and current wars. Still, whatever its origins, the final Monday of each May remains a significant date on our national calendar, and that is something that everyone can agree on.

1 David Merchent, “Memorial Day History” (June 1, 2005).

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  • Alternative Accounts of the History of Memorial Day

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    More Comments:

    NYGuy - 6/6/2003

    For you history buff, do you know what happened on this day. If not, ask your parents and grandparents. You probably will find some great Americans who you can be proud of.

    Thank you GI's. We appreciate your efforts and sacrifice.

    Josh Greenland - 5/29/2003

    "I have never met a grunt, squid, jarhead or zoomie who had the opportunity to see the show who was not grateful for the experience, whose spirits were not raised and who does not have fond remembrances of it today, 30 odd years later. Not a bad accomplishment in a miserable war. If you were there, you know that this is the truth;"

    If you're saying that all US military people in Vietnam were grateful to see Bob Hope's show, you're wrong. He was booed at at least one of his shows in Vietnam. He mentions this in his biography Don't Shoot, It's Only Me. I recall Hope as being RABIDLY pro-Vietnam War at the time, pro-Nixon and anti-hippie. I gathered from his autobiography that he was booed by those troops for his pro-Vietnam War sentiment, which didn't surprise me given what I remembered about him.

    BTW, I feel that his willingness to continue doing USO shows for military personnel is a credit to him.

    "And what were you doing during the Viet Nam War?"

    I was going to elementary school, during which I was asked by college students to be part of a demonstration against the war-linked Stanford Research Institute think tank (SRI), I was in junior high where I listened to my more adventurous classmates tell how they'd gone to anti-war demos that became wild melees, where they had once "welcomed" Spiro Agnew to our town, and where kids I knew nailed our brainless member of the House of Representatives to the wall on his support for the Vietnam War, and I was in high school when the use of US conscripts in Vietnam ended, one year before I was old enough to have voluntarily gone into the military, which I would not have done for any reason, and certainly wouldn't have done to go to Vietnam.

    Does that answer your question?

    John Kipper - 5/28/2003

    I don't understand the thrust of your question.

    The superficial answer to what Bob Hope did during the war was to entertain the troops during the holidays, at a great hardship to himself. Of course, this was merely a continuation of his efforts since WWII.

    On one level, his golf club, hokie jokes and starlet filled revue were good fun. On the other hand, just the mere fact that this great man came to entertain us validated our efforts, making us the moral equivalents of our fathers. I have never met a grunt, squid, jarhead or zoomie who had the opportunity to see the show who was not grateful for the experience, whose spirits were not raised and who does not have fond remembrances of it today, 30 odd years later. Not a bad accomplishment in a miserable war. If you were there, you know that this is the truth; if you weren't there don't rush to judgement. I'll bet that the troops Hope visited in Gulf War I, when he was in his eighties feel the same way.

    The fact is that I will always remember the show that I saw. It was the highlight of a year that I would otherwise prefer not to repeat. I do not know the all of the personal or political motivations that caused these entertainers to go on the tour; neither do I care. The fact is that what Bob Hope was doing during the Viet Nam war was a great humanitarian effort, a spreading of fellowship and good cheer, an appreciation of patriotism and sacrfice and a celebration of the individual soldier.

    And what were you doing during the Viet Nam War?

    NYGuy - 5/26/2003


    A simple search of Yahoo or Google would have answered your "serious question". Here is one example. If you need more information read the original article to get clues on what states to search for.

    Meanwhile, both Northern and Southern soldiers are honored on this day, as well as others soldiers who have died to make America the greatest country in the world, the land of the free and the home of the brave. And that is why everyone envies us and wants to live here. Can you name a better country to live in?


    WHEREAS, the Legislature has designated the last Monday of April as the day for the observance of CONFEDERATE MEMORIAL DAY, and under the provisions of Section 3-3-7, Mississippi Code of 1972, is a legal holiday in the State of Mississippi;

    THEREFORE, all officers and employees of the State of Mississippi are authorized and empowered, at the discretion of the executive head of the department or agency, to close their respective offices in observance of the holiday on

    MONDAY, APRIL 28, 2003
    GIVEN under my hand and seal of office at Jackson, Mississippi, this the 31st day of March, 2003.

    God Bless America, my home sweet home.

    NYGuy - 5/26/2003

    It is a big country. Many other large countries have big armies. What is your point? Do you know anything about history. Do you remember how Adolph Hitler turned a peaceful world into the greatest human disaster in history. You sound just like Chamberland.

    Look at the bright side for a change, you live in a great country under the banner of freedom. Where else could you do better?

    Today is Memorial Day. Let us properly remember and honor those who sacrified to keep this country free.

    But, as Lincoln said, "If you don't want to be criticized you have to say nothing, do nothing and even then you will be critized." You prove him right, there is always the malcontent who runs scared and critizes everything.

    As I told Bill Shepp I put my original post on, which was the only one, to see people like you come out of the woodwork. I try to tell my friends, now I can show them what we are dealing with in this country. Even our remembering and honoring our veterans is fair game for people who hate America.

    Why don't you get serious.

    NYGuy - 5/26/2003

    Since you are usually unclear in what you are asking, i.e. Confederate Memorial Day, could you please clarify you comment on Bob Hope and Vietnam? Do you even know who Bob Hope is?

    Josh Greenland - 5/26/2003

    The USA is indeed a highly militarized country.

    Josh Greenland - 5/26/2003

    I'm still hoping for serious replies to my question, which I'll amend for clarity:

    If your state has a Confederate Memorial Day holiday (in addition to the federal Memorial Day holiday), is Confederate Memorial Day actually observed by any people you've ever known, and do any governmental offices or businesses close to observe it?

    Josh Greenland - 5/26/2003

    And what did the NBC show say about Bob Hope's actions during the Vietnam War?

    NYGuy - 5/25/2003

    Just finished watching the NBC show on Bob Hope's contribution to our troops during war time. It is not only about a great American but tells much about those who put their life on the line for all of us. Thanks Bob.

    Today we remember those brave souls who helped keep us free. You will not be forgotten.

    God Bless America.

    NYGuy - 5/25/2003

    Yes it recognized in New York State which I believe sent the most soldiers to fight for the Union and I believe lost the most in the Civil War battles.

    Memorial day recognized the brave men in both the North and the South. Their are many Confederate who are buried in North cemeteries and many Northerners who are buried in Southern cemeteries. If you studied the history of this day you will see that the men and women who originally decorated the graves of the soldiers who fought in that War did not descrimnate between dead Northern and Southern soldiers.

    Your comment is based on ignorance of history and a feeble attempt to make a cute remark on what American's consider a very important and sacred day and topic. Unlike the brave soldiers who gave their lives, it does not shed much glory on you.

    NYGuy - 5/25/2003

    Seems you forgot your history, have you ever heard of the celebration of April 17,1775. These days not only honor men and women who have protected us and brought peace to the world but also celebrate their specific achievement. It does not make us more or less a military country. We have also known that we have to protect ourselves. Althought this is a history board, it sounds like you don't like American History.

    US forces were decisive in stopping the "meatgrinder war" in 1918 which saved million of lives. You don't believe these men should be honored. Bet you can't even idenify on which day that war is remembered? Did you ever hear of the three 11's.

    Another example of how illiterate many our citizens are about their country, but they know all the limited, but great things that other countries aournd the world that are non-democratic, dictatorships, etc are doing.

    As a one who has limited knowledge of history, you may not know that a tyrant and dictator was able to overwhelm a peaceful world and create the greatest human suffering in history because no one was prepared to stop him. This was know as World War II. But the sacrifices of these brave men are not worth remembering.

    While I would not disagree on the Civil War, I would add that I respect the soldiers on both sides of that War. It was the greatest bloodbath in our history and took the lives of many brave and loyal Americans.

    But, as one of the few lone voices on this topic you are free to express your opinion which is why this is a great country. That is why I was the first to post on this topic since I wanted to draw out Americans like you.

    Bill Stepp, libertarian at large - 5/25/2003

    This morning the CBS program "Sunday Morning" had a segment on the origins of Memorial Day (ne Decoration Day). The first observance was in Waterloo, NY in 1866, and was simply a local event. Two years later, John Logan prevailed on Congress to have Decoration Day declared a holiday. In 1971 Congress passed a law declaring the last Monday in May a federal holiday.
    Naturally, this happened during the Trixon regime-junta (why not?) and naturally this bit of militarism remembrance because another way to enable federal "employees" to become deadbeats for a day. (Not that they are not deadbeats on the days they punch a clock.)
    Consulting my calendar, I notice that there are three days given to remembering militariam--Memorial Day, Armed Forces Day, and Veterans Day. Isn't one day enough for the warmongers to force the rest of us not to work and to remember just how much of a criminal enterprise the State is?
    There were at most two just wars in American history--The Revolution, and the War of Southern Independence.
    Every other war was a crime against the taxpayers and other victims.

    Josh Greenland - 5/25/2003

    I have a question for anyone on the board who wants to answer it:

    Is Confederate Memorial Day observed by people in your state?

    NYGuy - 5/22/2003

    I for one want to express my appreciation for remembering Memorial Day on this website.

    I would just add, however, this is such an interesting topic for historians that I would have liked to see some more details on the origins. As best I understand several places in the U. S. have been identified as the the beginnings of Memorial Day, the visiting of graveyards and the placing of flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers. It would be nice if someone would expand on this national holiday.

    Meanwhile, thank you for remembering.