In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized Waterloo, New York as having the first Memorial Day 100 years earlier. However, multiple towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, and the holiday’s long evolution makes it unclear who actually started it. On top of that, there are many persistent myths about how Memorial Day was started.
While people have commemorated the sacrifices of soldiers for as long as there have been wars, Memorial Day as we know it in the United States got its start during the American Civil War. As the conflict wound down, people across the North and South tried to honor fallen soldiers.
One such ceremony was held on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. Local all-black churches led a gathering of roughly ten thousand people, many of whom were former slaves, in properly reburying Union soldiers and holding a ceremony to honor their sacrifice and dedicate the new cemetery. The event included speeches, the laying of wreaths and crosses, drills performed by Union soldiers and even picnicking. However, it’s unclear if the event influenced any other such ceremonies in the country, so it remains ambiguous if it should actually be considered the first Memorial Day
The Birthplace(s) of Memorial Day
There are numerous places in the country that claim to have first celebrated Memorial Day a recurring holiday rather than a one-off event. Boalsburg, Pennsylvania claims that an 1864 gathering of women to mourn the deaths of soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg makes it the founder of the holiday, while Carbondale, Illinois claims two markers in its cemeteries as well as a parade led by Major General John A. Logan (more on him in a moment) as proof that it held the first annual celebration. There’s even a Columbus, Georgia and Columbus, Mississippi with competing claims.
While Waterloo, New York eventually won federal recognition because of evidence that its celebrations involved the full closure of the town, it has well over 20 rivals for the title, and all of them — even Waterloo — rely on evidence that is at least somewhat disputed. There’s only one event that unambiguously served as a forerunner to Memorial Day.
Major General Logan was the head of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a Civil War veterans organization. With popular support for ceremonies celebrating fallen soldiers rising, in 1868, he declared May 30 to be Decoration Day, a holiday specifically for the adornment of fallen soldier’s graves. Different sources suggest his motivation for choosing the day was either because that’s when flowers are in bloom across the country and therefore ready to be left on soldiers graves or because May 30 is a day where no Civil War battles were fought.
While Decoration Day was not a national holiday, it was popular across the country. By 1890, it had been made a state holiday by each of the Northern states. Southern states, however, continued to celebrate separate Confederate days of remembrance until World War I. Confederate Memorial Day is still celebrated as a holiday alongside Memorial Day in some states today.
Decoration Day became a federal holiday in 1888, although it only applied to government employees in Washington, D.C, as was customary at the time. However, other states adopted it over time until every state celebrated it. As the United States moved on from the Civil War to participate in other conflicts, particularly World War I, the holiday also broadened to be about honoring all soldiers who died in the line of duty. By the end of World War II, Memorial Day had also supplanted the name Decoration Day.
In 1968, a law made the name change official. It also moved Memorial Day to its modern date: the last Monday of May. It came into effect in 1971 and created the annual Memorial Day weekends that Americans know and love today, but it also angered people who felt it shifted the focus from remembrance to enjoying time off. While the states eventually fell in line, many veterans continued to voice dissent on the issue. Their feelings led Hawaiian senator and World War II veteran Daniel Inouye to introduce a bill to change the day of observance back to May 30 at the start of every term he served in Congress until his death in 2012.