On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan issued an order that May 30th be “designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion [U.S. Civil War], and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances permit…”
Toward the end of his order, General Logan wrote, “It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades.”
Following that order, flowers were laid at the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers alike at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868. That marked the nation’s first Decoration Day.
Afterward, the holiday was marked in a number of cities. The May 30, 1871 edition of the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph wrote the following account:
This is Decoration Day, and every green mound and marble shaft that marks a hero’s resting place will be decked with refreshing flowers—emblematic of the tender love and gratitude of the people whose safety, prosperity, and peace were secured through their patriotic efforts. The custom of decking the graves extends to every spot where a soldier is buried, and there is mournful satisfaction in seeing the people thus formally set aside a time to do honor to the memory of the heroic dead.
In this city it has always been the delight of the citizens to remember the sacrifices, the self-denial, and the bravery of the soldiers of the Union, and the ceremonies of decorating the graves are always witnessed by great multitudes of people.
Beginning in 1873 New York was the first State to recognize Decoration Day as an official holiday. Afterward, a growing number of states embraced it. As that happened, the name of the holiday was increasingly called “Memorial Day.”
Later, in the aftermath of additional wars, the purpose of the day expanded to include those who died in those subsequent wars. In 1968, Congress adopted legislation that was signed into law (Public Law 90-363), which established the dates for a number of legal public holidays. That law, which came into effect on January 1, 1971, moved Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday of May.
On this day, while it might be tempting to look ahead to the coming Commencement ceremonies or to mark the unofficial start of summer, one should also remember all those who gave their lives on behalf of the nation and its people. Without such sacrifices, we all might be living in a very different world.