In the years directly proceeding the Civil War, it was a common practice in towns across the country to hold what was referred to as Decoration Day. This was a day where citizens would adorn the graves of Civil War soldiers with flowers.
The Beginning of a Solemn Holiday
According to the Library of Congress, one of the first documented instances came from an editorial in the New York Tribune in 1866. The article mentioned a women’s memorial group in Columbus, Miss. who were decorating the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers in a show of reconciliation between the two formerly waring sides.
A few years later, the Grand Army of the Republic, a veteran’s group comprised of Union Civil War soldiers and sailors, began advocating for a specific day to honor the dead.
In 1868 their commander, General John A. Logan, put out General Orders No. 11 which would become the basis for what is now known as Memorial Day.
General John A. Logan had many notable achievements in his military career. Among these, he was a corps commander for the Army of Tennessee and was also instrumental in winning the Vicksburg Campaign.
Read the text below for General Orders No. 11:
I. The 30th day of May, 1868 is 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, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose, among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided republic.
If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remains in us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the nation’s gratitude—the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.
II. 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. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.
III. Department commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.
By Command of –
John A. Logan,
Commander in Chief
N.P. Chipman, Adjutant General
Following the issue of Gen. Orders No. 11
Through the rest of the 19th century, localities would set a day (typically May 30) in which to honor those who died in the “War Between the States.” Types of commemorations ranged from solemn services inside cemeteries to parades down city main streets.
Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was commonly referred to during the latter half of the 19th century, became more consistent across the country as groups, such as the Grand Old Army, began to put out handbooks with regulations and procedures for remembrance ceremonies.
Going into the 20th Century the focus of the holiday shifted from being just about those killed during the Civil War to a commemoration honoring anyone who died in service to the nation, with some localities recognizing first responders.
Today, sometimes the original meaning of Memorial Day gets lost in the mire of summer vacation, holidays from work, and various sales around the area. However, it is important to remember what this observation is about, and it is to honor those who gave all in service to our nation.
In the words of President Harry S. Truman, “Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices.”
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