‘Decorating the Graves of Comrades’: Memorial Day Celebrated More Than 150 Years Ago


Memorial Day was first observed more than 150 years ago to honor Civil War soldiers, but it did not become an official holiday until 1971.

It was initially known as Decoration Day and first widely celebrated on May 30, 1868, according to PBS.

“The 30th 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,” said Gen. John Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, according to History.

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Nearly 5,000 people helped decorate the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington during the first Decoration Day, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

Some believe the May 30 date was chosen because flowers would be in season around the nation.

There has been some controversy over the official origins of Memorial Day, with nearly 25 locations having some sort of connection with the beginning of the holiday.

President Lyndon Johnson and Congress named Waterloo, New York, as the official birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966. Waterloo reportedly held a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honoring local Civil War veterans. Residents flew flags at half-staff and stores were closed.

Following World War I, the holiday began commemorating all of those who died in service during American wars.

Several Southern states also hold Confederate observances in addition to Memorial Day.

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