From its origins in the Civil War to its modern-day traditions, read on to learn more about America’s most solemn holiday.
As our Civil War came to an end, thousands of Union prisoner of war soldiers were herded into camps in Charleston, South Carolina. Conditions at one camp, a former racetrack, were so bad that more than 250 prisoners died from disease or exposure. The deceased were buried in a mass grave behind the track’s grandstand.
Three weeks after the Confederate Army surrendered, on May 1, 1865, more than 1,000 recently freed slaves, regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops and a handful of Charleston residents gathered in the camp to create a new, proper burial site for the Union soldiers. They sang hymns, gave readings and distributed flowers around the gravesites.
Even before the Civil War ended, women’s groups across the South were gathering informally to decorate the graves of deceased Confederate soldiers.
In May 1868, General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Union veterans’ group known as the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a decree that May 30 should become a nationwide day of commemoration for the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the Civil War. Dubbed “Decoration Day” by General Logan, Americans were requested to show their respect by decorating and laying flowers on the graves of those lost in the war. According to legend, Logan chose May 30 because it was one of the rare dates that didn’t have a Civil War battle associated with it. Other historians believe he chose the date to ensure that flowers across the country would be in full bloom.
Americans embraced “Decoration Day” immediately with more than 27 states holding some sort of ceremony that very first year. By 1890, every former state of the Union had adopted it as an official holiday. For more than 50 years, Decoration Day was used to commemorate those killed in the Civil War. With America’s entry into World War I that tradition was expanded to include those killed in all wars.
With the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, Decoration Day was moved from May 30 to the set day of the last Monday in May. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress. Even today, Veteran’s groups, concerned that more Americans associate the holiday with the first long weekend of the summer and not its intended purpose to honor the nation’s war dead, continue to lobby for a return to the May 30 observance date.