Memorial Day began in honor of the Civil War dead

Historic City News subscribers probably know the recent history and plight of the Ladies Memorial Association memorial to 46 local veterans of the American Civil War; whose lives and deaths were marginalized in August of 2020 by an appointed mayor, Tracy Upchurch, a since booted ex-commissioner, Leanna Freeman, and an impostor, Nancy Sikes-Kline, masquerading as the defender of historic preservation, who has jockeyed herself into a position where she is likely to be elected the city’s next mayor.

What many will not know is that the national “Memorial Day” holiday we have celebrated on the last Monday in May since it was enacted by Congress in 1971, originally began in America in 1868.  Formerly known as “Decoration Day”, the holiday was inspired by local observances during the three years following the end of the Civil War by mourners who honored the Civil War dead by decorating their graves with flowers.

On May 30, 1868, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried in the cemetery.  By the late 19th century, many communities across the country had begun to celebrate Memorial Day, and after World War I, observers began to honor the dead of all of America’s wars.

In 1966, the federal government, under the direction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day.  The town had made Memorial Day an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags, since May 5, 1866. 

They chose Waterloo over several other cities that claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, including Columbus, Mississippi; Macon, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; and Carbondale, Illinois. Today, Memorial Day is celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave. It is customary for the president or vice president to give a speech honoring the contributions of the dead and to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.