Origins of Memorial Day
Out of the Holocaust of the Civil War Arose America’s Most Solemn Holiday
By Marshall S. Berdan; Hallowed Ground Magazine, Fall 2016
The cessation of hostilities in the spring of 1865 brought a relieved calm on both the victorious North and the vanquished South. Families and communities across the reconstituted union welcomed home their battered and war-weary sons, bothers and husbands. But the sacrifices of the more than 650,000 soldiers and sailors who died during the course of the four-year ordeal were seared into the national consciousness. The holiday now known as Memorial Day sprang from earnest actions by communities on both sides to honor their gallant and glorious dead.
Honoring one’s war dead is inherently human, making it unsurprising that a number of communities profess to being the birthplace of our nation’s most solemn holy day. All told, some two dozen communities — including Boalsburg, Pa.; Carbondale, Ill.; Charleston, S.C.; and a pair of Columbuses, one in Georgia, the other in Mississippi — have made the claim.
In 1966, Congress intervened to resolve the not entirely friendly dispute by issuing House Concurrent Resolution 587, which declared Waterloo, N.Y., a small manufacturing center in the state’s Finger Lakes region, to be “the birthplace of Memorial Day.” Originally proposed by Albany-area congressman Samuel S. Stratton, Waterloo’s primacy was based upon the fact that, unlike the ceremonies of other claimants, its commemoration had been formal, community-wide and recurring.
By selecting Waterloo, Congress also conferred paternity upon local druggist and bookseller Henry Carter Welles. Born into a prominent Connecticut family in 1820, Welles was the sixth and last child of Henry Howell Welles and Sila Welles. After the 1825 death of her husband, Sila moved her family to Waterloo, where her older brother had established a successful medical practice. By the outbreak of the war, 40-year-old Henry, now the married father of three, had become one of Waterloo’s more prominent and patriotic citizens. Too old to enlist, he devoted himself to the Union cause in other ways.
His most lasting contribution came shortly after the war was over when, at a social gathering rejoicing in the return of Waterloo’s Union veterans, he wondered aloud why so little was being done to honor those who would not be returning. Wouldn’t it be fitting, he opined, for their graves to be decorated with flowers, a display of public appreciation rooted in antiquity?
Nothing became of Welles’ proposal until he repeated it the following winter to Gen. John B. Murray, Seneca County’s newly elected clerk of courts. During the war, Murray had been one of the commanders of the 148th New York Infantry Regiment. More significant, he would shortly be named leader of the local chapter of the soon-to-be-founded Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), the official Union soldiers’ veterans association.
Murray, a born leader and gifted orator, recognized the righteousness of Welles’ idea, and the pair collaborated to form an organizing committee. The solemn and dignified commemoration they planned and straightforwardly called Decoration Day took place on May 5, 1866, a date chosen, it is believed, because it fell on a Saturday, when businesses could close without adverse effect, and there would be an abundance of fresh, local flowers.
A parade of Union veterans, dressed in uniform and accompanied by martial music, marched through the center of town past flags lowered to half-staff and balconies draped with evergreen boughs and black cloth of mourning. The procession then visited each of Waterloo’s three cemeteries, at which Murray said a few words of tribute before the graves of the fallen soldiers were solemnly decorated.
A second commemoration was held the next year on the same date. Favorable reports of Waterloo’s dignified, and now annual, tribute began to circulate throughout the North and the rapidly expanding G.A.R., with popular support for the new Decoration Day ginned up by the publication of New York lawyer Francis Miles Finch’s moving nonpartisan elegy “The Blue and the Grey” in the September 1867 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
Clearly, small-town Waterloo had struck a nerve in the still-grieving country. On May 5, 1868, Illinois congressman Gen. John A. Logan, national commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order #11 proclaiming that May 30 “is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country in the late rebellion.”
Exactly why Logan shifted the date is a matter of speculation. Allegedly, he didn’t want Decoration Day to fall on the anniversary of any one particular battle, and May 5, 1864, had witnessed the bloody Battle of the Wilderness in Grant’s Overland Campaign. It has also been speculated that Logan wanted to wait until the weather was more reliably warm across the north so that ample supplies of flowers would be available in all communities.
It probably didn’t hurt that May 30 fell on a Saturday that year, enhancing the prospects of success for the G.A.R.’s inaugural national ceremony. Some 5,000 assembled that afternoon at Arlington National Cemetery to hear former Union general, current U.S. congressman, and future U.S. president, James A. Garfield speak for about 15 minutes before dispersing to decorate the graves of some 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers.
Despite Northern attempts to include the Southern dead, the states of the former Confederacy refused to acknowledge Decoration Day, by then also known colloquially as Memorial Day, until 1918, when it was expanded to include the dead from all wars. For them, the proper day of remembrance was — and still is — Confederate Memorial Day (also known as Confederate Decoration Day or Confederate Heroes Day), which falls on various dates in late April, early May or early June in individual states across the south (except in Texas, where the date recognizes Robert E. Lee’s and Jefferson Davis’s January birthdays.)
Even after its universal embrace, it wasn’t until 1971 that Memorial Day became an official national holiday, courtesy of the delayed implementation the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, which moved the observance from General Logan’s original date to the fourth Monday in the month.
DID YOU KNOW:
Observance of the first Memorial Day actually predates the formal conclusion of the Civil War. On August 25, 1866, President Andrew Johnson issued Proclamation 157, declaring that “said insurrection is at an end and that peace, order, tranquility, and civil authority now exist in and throughout the whole of the United States of America.”
About the Author
A longtime Trust member, Marshall S. Berdan is a successful travel writer who seeks to introduce his readers to important historic and cultural sites of the American northeast — and the world. He is the author of Raising Global Children, showcasing how early introduction to travel and culture can shape an entire worldview.