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How Memorial Day began

Memorial Day Parade ca.1900

Memorial Day Parade ca.1900

The origin of Memorial Day lies not in a single occasion, but in a series of planned and spontaneous events that arose at the end of the War between the States. In the South, there is evidence that groups of women were organized and decorating the graves of soldiers before the end of the war. A hymn published in 1867 by Mrs. L. Nella Sweet was titled “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” and was dedicated “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”

“Kneel where our loved are sleeping, Dear ones days gone by,
Here we bow in holy reverence; Our bosoms heave the heartfelt sigh.
They fell like brave men, true as steel, And pour’d their blood like rain,
We feel we owe them all we have, And can but weep and kneel again.”

A re-enactment of a Civil War burial

From a re-enactment of a Civil War burial for a Union soldier

In the North, various post-war fraternal organizations developed, with the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) being the largest, most organized, and most powerful. In 1868, GAR Commander-in-Chief John A. Logan, who admired the southern ladies dedication in decorating their fallen soldiers’ graves, issued General Order No. 11 calling for all Departments and Posts to set aside the 30th of May as a day for remembering the sacrifices of fallen comrades, thereby beginning the celebration of Decoration Day. They began by placing flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

With the backing of the GAR, Decoration Day spread across the northern states, but not so much in the south. Some southerners refused to acknowledge the day, but continued to honor their war dead on separate days, though there were notable exceptions.

By the end of World War I the focus of Memorial Day changed to honoring all Americans who died fighting in any war. In their honor, flags are flown at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day.

It is now celebrated nationally on the last *Monday in May, though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.

*Changed by Congress through the National Holiday Act of 1971 (a benefit for federal workers). See also “What Happened to George Washington’s Birthday?” Part 1 and Part 2.

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