The enormity of human pain and death associated with the Civil War, unprecedented in so many ways, inspired equally novel responses. Most significant among these was the creation of Memorial Day, an annual national holiday urging citizens to decorate the graves of their soldier dead and observe a day of solemn reflection in gratitude and remembrance. So widespread was the impulse to honor the war dead that observances occurred spontaneously in several locations, unbidden by any political or military authority. Because the need was so great, and because so many responded in similar ways, these numerous early ceremonies tend to blur the origins of this now national tradition.
While the issue for many has been to determine, as definitively as may be, the true origin of the tradition, we feel it is more important to observe the power of the impulse to commemorate manifest among so many. We present here, hopefully without prejudice or favor, a survey of some of the early instances of the commemorative impulse — along with select references — that much later became the national holiday.
[Note: All spelling and capitalization has been preserved from the original sources. We welcome the contribution of additional evidence for these or any other early decoration or memorial service.]
13/16? April 1862, Arlington Heights, Virginia
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“On the sixteenth of April, 1862, some ladies and a chaplain from Michigan were chatting together at Arlington Heights. They were talking about the horrors of the war and one lady said: ‘How lonely and cheerless the bare graves of the soldiers look.’ Another proposed gathering some flowers and laying them on the graves of the Michigan soldiers that day. They did so, — and the next year they decorated the same graves. The third year  the same chaplain and ladies were in Fredericksburg, and they decorated the soldiers’ graves there. So the beautiful custom grew and spread its influence with its flowers each year.”
M. W. A., “Memorial Day,” The Teachers’ Institute 18 (April 1896): 191.
“The following contribution is sent Our Curiosity Shop by Mr. Charles O. Lucas, of Greenville, Ohio, as an interesting addition to the literature on the subject of Decoration Day, and how and when it came to be established in the United States:
Mrs. Sarah Nicholas Evans, who died recently in Des Moines, Iowa, was one of the four ladies with whom the observance of Decoration Day originated. On April 13, 1862, just one year after the fall of Fort Sumter, Mrs. Evans, with the wife and two daughters of Chaplain May, of the Second Regiment Michigan Volunteers, decorated the graves of a number of soldiers buried on Arlington Heights. In May of the next year the same ladies performed the service again at the same place. In May of the year following they rendered the same sadly pleasant attention to the graves of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg. In 1874 Congress took notice of a ceremonial so significant of the Nation's obligation to the dead, and made May 30 a legal holiday. It was becoming, after such a record, that Mrs. Evans should have a formal recognition by the Grand Army. This was given her by Crocker Post, No. 12, Des Moines, February, 1873, the same recognition being extended to Miss Ella May, now the only survivor of the four, a few months later.”
Thomas C. Mac Millan, ed., The Inter Ocean Curiosity Shop For the Year 1884 (Chicago: The Inter Ocean Publishing Co., 1889): 95-96.
4 July 1864 [Summer or Fall], Boalsburg, Pennsylvania
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“On the 4th of July, 1864 (I think that was the first 4th of July following the death of Dr. Reuben Hunter, of Boalsburg), Emma Hunter, now Mrs. James T. Stuart, and I went to the Boalsburg Cemetery to decorate her father’s grave. While making a cross of flowers and wreath of same, the idea suggested itself to us that it would be appropriate, considering the day, to decorate all the graves of the soldiers buried there. Going home, we soon procured more flowers and laurel and made a wreath for every grave of a soldier, and as some of your boys of the 148th lie there, I think it can be said that the 148th was the first regiment to have its graves decorated. This date of decoration was at least four or five years prior to the ordinance passed by the United States setting the 30th of May as the time and several years before the claimants for the honor of first decorating graves performed that ceremony in the Georgetown Cemetery.”
Sophie Keller Hall, in The Story of Our Regiment: A History of the 148th Pennsylvania Vols., ed. J. W. Muffly (Des Moines: The Kenyon Printing & Mfg. Co., 1904), quoted in editor’s note, p. 45.
“[I]n the summer or fall of 1864, Miss Emma Hunter of Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, is said to have decorated the tomb of her father, Colonel James Hunter, who commanded the 49th Pennsylvania Regiment in the Battle of Gettysburg. Together with a Mrs. Meyer, mother of a son killed in the war, Miss Hunter conceived the idea of decorating all the graves. From these precedents, the town of Boalsburg credits itself with being the ‘Birthplace of Memorial Day.’”
Robert J. Meyers, Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1972), 161-162.
Herbert G. Moore, “Boalsburg and Our First Memorial Day,” National Republic (May 1948): 3-4.
Spring, 1865, near Knoxville, Tennessee
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“The following incident related by our well-known citizen some years ago found its way into print and has traveled through the realm of newspaperdom. We republish it, for it may help to consecrate the Nation's Memorial day to its original purpose and help to keep down the festivities which seem to have been associated with its observance. Memorial Sunday and Decoration day belong to mankind for a different purpose than many seem to imagine. Perhaps the incident below recorded may awaken in some degree the true inspiration:
The first decoration of the graves of Union soldiers of which there is any record was witnessed by Surgeon Fred W. Byers, of the Ninety-sixth Illinois volunteer infantry, now surgeon general of the National guard of the state of Wisconsin. In the spring of 1865 he was en route to East Tennessee from Huntsville, Ala., with a railroad hospital train, via Stevenson and Chattanooga. The weather was of that delightful kind so enjoyable in that portion of the South. After leaving Knoxville he rode on the engine, and thus had a splendid view of the magnificent scenery in passing through that mountain region. Near the end of the day the train stopped to ‘wood up.’ In a grove close by, a group of bareheaded rustic maidens, clad in homespun dresses, were seen with bunches, bouquets, and wreaths of wild flowers which they were strewing upon little mounds.
Comrade Byers did not have time to learn for whom or why they were engaged in so unique and interesting a ceremony, but later, as he returned through that section, he stopped at a farmhouse, where he met and recognized one of the girls, and asked what she and her little friends were doing with the wild flowers that evening. A plain, beautiful story was told in a simple, frank way as follows:
‘Us girls went out there to drop flowers on the graves of some of our soldiers who were killed in a cavalry fight. They were buried in the woods by our folks. We didn’t know them: we don’t know their names, but I told the girls that we would put flowers over them, and then some day somebody, I hope, will drop flowers on my brother’s grave. We don’t know where his grave is: we only know that he was killed at Stone River. He was Union, sir, and so was mv father.’”
Illinois, Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, [Alfred Bayliss, Supt.?] “Circular 81 – Memorial Day 1906” (n.p., ), 15.
26 April 1865, Jackson, Mississippi
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“The incident in Mrs. [Sue Landon Adams] Vaughan’s life, which assured her name a permanent place in history, occurred at Jackson, Miss., when she founded Decoration day by first decorating the graves of Confederate and Federal soldiers alike, in Jackson cemetery, Apr. 26, 1865. The evening of Apr. 25, 1865, was one of the darkest in the Confederate struggle. There were rumors of disaster and defeat. Gen. Lee had surrendered at Appomatox; and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s forces were surrounded at Goldsboro, N.C.; the Federals were advancing from Vicksburg to demand the surrender of Jackson, and the South realized that her beloved banner had fallen in defeat. Just before midnight, Apr. 25, 1865, two Confederate couriers arrived to inform their friends that ‘the Federals were coming,’ and that the surrender would take place on the arrival of Generals [Richard] Dick Taylor and [Edward R. S.] Canby. Mrs. Vaughan therefore wrote her appeal to the ‘Daughters of the Southland’ to meet the next day, Apr. 26, 1865, before the surrender, at the cemetery, ‘and garland the graves of our fallen braves’ in commemoration of their valor and patriotism. Thus was Decoration day first observed. . . . [I]n the South, Apr. 26, 1865, is still recognized [as the day of observance] and Mrs. Vaughan’s claim as the founder of Decoration day antedates all other claims by one year. The fact is recorded on the state monument at Jackson, Miss.”
The National Cyclopædia of American Biography, Supp. 1 (New York: James T. White & Co., 1910), 128.
Late April 1865, Kingston, Georgia
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[A historic road-side marker indicates Kingston as the location of the “First Decoration, or Memorial Day.”]
1 May 1865, Charleston, South Carolina
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“I might tell you a great deal about Charleston, but to-day I will speak of one incident only – the first celebration of May-day in free South Carolina. When our soldiers were made prisoners by the rebels they were carried to Belle Isle, near Richmond, or to Salisbury, in North Carolina, or to Andersonville, in Georgia, or to Charleston. . . . Here they were detained on what is called the Race Course. Charleston was once noted as the head-quarters of a jockey club, and many of the finest horses in the country were owned, and raised, and raced here. . . . Robust, healthy young men soon sickened under this [cruel imprisonment], and many of them died. Two hundred and fifty-seven of them were found dead, and were buried in an enclosed piece of pasture near by. . . .
Accompanied by a few friends, I went out one day and saw their graves; and on them the marks of the hoofs of cattle and horses and of the feet of men. Very sad we felt when we looked on these melancholy red mounds and on this wicked profanation of the resting-places of our martyrs. We all sat down and thought what we should do. We resolved to have a fence built around it, and, if we could raise the money, a monument erected to the memory of the soldiers who rested from their sufferings below. The general gave me liberty to pull down some rebel buildings not far off, and nearly thirty colored men volunteered to put up the fence, without any wages or reward. Very soon there was more than half an acre enclosed.
On May-day I told all the colored children of the free schools of Charleston to go out to the Race Course with bouquets of roses and other sweet-smelling flowers, and throw them on the graves of our martyrs. Nearly three thousand children went out, and perhaps double that number of grown-up people. The children marched from the Race Course singing the John Brown Song, and then, silently and reverently, and with heads uncovered, they entered the burial ground and covered the graves with flowers. Afterwards they went to the fields near by and sang the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ ‘America,’ and ‘Rally Round the Flag.’
This is how the colored children spent May-day in Charleston. It was the first free May-day gathering they had ever enjoyed.”
Uncle James [James Redpath], “Eye and Ear Notes: May-Day in Charleston, S.C.,” The Youth’s Companion 38 (1 June 1865): 86.
“In the last autumn of the Civil War, in 1864, two hundred and forty-nine Union soldiers, prisoners of war, died while confined upon the race-course in Charleston, S. C., and were buried there in two rows of graves. In April, 1865, the war was over, and the flag was raised again on Fort Sumter with patriotic ceremonies, including an oration by Henry Ward Beecher, especially named for that service by President Lincoln. . . . James Redpath had recently been appointed superintendent of education in Charleston, and he suggested to Rear-Admiral Dahlgren, present as commander of the United States fleet, to come ashore May 1 and assist in the decoration of these soldiers’ graves, among which were some of the sailors in the United States navy. Other engagements kept Admiral Dahlgren from taking part in the ceremony, which was carried out by Mr. Redpath and a number of his teachers. . . . Among those who spoke on that first Memorial Day, besides Mr. Redpath, were Gens. Stewart L. Woodford, James Hartwell, and James C. Beecher, brother of Henry Ward Beecher. . . . The wives of several of these gentlemen were present, and Mrs. James C. Beecher directed the negro women who took part in the celebration.”
“Memorial-Day Texts and Suggestions,” The Homiletic Review 39 (May 1900): 431.
Harper’s Weekly, 18 May 1867
Charles F. Horner, The Life of James Redpath and the Development of the Modern Lyceum (New York: Barse & Hopkins, 1926), 111-118.
Paul H. Buck, The Road to Reunion, 1865-1900 (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1937), 116-117 [Buck misdates the event to 30 May 1865].
Whitlaw Reid, After the War: A Tour of Southern States, 1865-1866, ed. by C. Vann Woodward (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 69.
David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 64-71.
25 April 1866, Columbus Mississippi
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“In the spring of 1866 Miss Matt Moreton, Mrs. J. T. Fontaine and Mrs. Green T. Hill . . . were in the habit of visiting Friendship cemetery and cleaning off as best they could the weeds and briers and decorating with flowers the neglected graves of the Confederate dead. This beautiful custom, inaugurated by them, found a hearty response in the breasts of the ladies of Columbus and resulted in a determination to make the decoration of the soldiers’ graves an annual occurrence, and the first celebration to take place was April 25, 1866.”
“Thus was established a custom which has become national in its adoption – Decoration Day – having its origin with the ladies of Columbus. . . . Columbus also claims the distinction of being the first to decorate the graves of both Confederate and Federal soldiers alike.”
W. L. Lipscomb, A History of Columbus, Mississippi During the 19th Century, ed. Mrs. Georgia P. Young (Birmingham, Al.: Press of Dispatch Printing Co., 1909), 129, 130 [emphasis in original].
Robert Haven Schajffler, ed., Memorial Day (Decoration Day): Its Celebration, Spirit and Significance As Related in Prose and Verse, with a Non-Sectional Anthology of the Civil War (New York: Moffat, Yard and Co., 1911), xxiv-xxv.
[It is commonly held that news of the joint commemoration prompted Francis Miles Finch to pen his famous poem about the Civil War dead, entitled “The Blue and the Gray”]
[+] click on images to enlarge
Francis Miles Finch, “The Blue and the Gray,” Atlantic Monthly 20 (September 1867): 369-370.
[Images Courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection]
26 April 1866, Columbus Georgia
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“Mrs. Williams [widow of Col. Charles Williams, d.1862] and her little girl visited his grave every day, and often comforted themselves by wreathing it with flowers.”
Confederate Veteran 1 (May 1893): 149.
“So in March 1866, [Mrs. Williams] published an appeal for the people of the South to join in setting apart a certain day ‘to be handed down through time as a religious custom of the South to wreathe the graves of our martyred dead with flowers,’ and she proposed the 26th of April as the day.”
Confederate Veteran 22 (May 1914): 194a
“To the State of Georgia belongs the credit of having inaugurated what has since become the universal custom of decorating annually the graves of the heroic dead. The initial ceremonies which ushered Memorial Day into life were held in Linnwood Cemetery, at Columbus, on April 26, 1866; and the patriotic Southern woman in whose loyal heart the idea first took definite form was Miss Lizzie Rutherford, afterwards Mrs. Roswell Ellis, the wife of a gallant ex-Confederate officer. . . .”
“For a long period of time there waged in the public prints a controversy between enthusiastic partisans respecting the true parentage of the Memorial Day idea; but the issue has at length happily been settled [in Mrs. Ellis’s favor].”
Lucian Lamar Knight, Georgia’s Landmarks, Memorials and Legends, 2 vols. (Atlanta, Ga.: The Byrd Printing Co., 1914), I: 156-166, quotes from 156, 157.
A History of the Origin of Memorial Day as Adopted by the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia (Columbus, Ga.: Thos. Gilbert, 1898).
I. W. Avery, The History of the State of Georgia from 1850 to 1881 (New York: Brown & Derby, 1881), 242.
26 April 1866, Memphis, Tennessee
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“The public are very cordially invited to unite with the warm-hearted ladies of the Southern Relief Society to-morrow, in decking the graves of our brave and illustrious dead in Elmwood Cemetery, with garlands of roses.”
“Grand Floral Ceremony,” Memphis Daily Argus, 25 April 1866.
“Yesterday was the day appointed throughout the South as a day of sweet remembrance for our brothers who now sleep their last long sleep – the sleep of death. That day (the 26th day of April) has and will be set apart annually as a day to be commemorated by all the purely Southern people in the country, as that upon which we are to lay aside our usual vocations of life and devote to the memory of our friends, brothers, husbands and sons, who have fallen in our late struggle for Southern independence.”
“The Floral Ceremony,” Memphis Daily Argus, 27 April 1866.
John W. Cothern, Confederates of Elmwood (Westminster, Md.: Heritage Books, 2007), esp. 213.
29 April 1866, Carbondale, Illinois
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[A stone marker in Carbondale claims that place as the location of the first decoration day, honoring the Union soldiers buried there. General John A. Logan, who would later become commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the largest of the Union veterans’ organizations, officiated at the ceremony].
5 May 1866, Waterloo, New York
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“But in 1865 the event occurred that would place [Henry Welles’s] name in the pages of history. For in the summer of that year he made a suggestion to some of his friends at a social gathering. Referring to the celebrations for returning war heroes, he said that, while praising the living, it would be well to remember the patriotic dead by placing flowers on their graves. Nothing resulted from this suggestion until he advanced the idea again the following spring to another village resident, General John B. Murray, recently elected Seneca County Clerk. General Murray, intensely patriotic and himself a Civil War hero, placed his prestige and influence behind the idea. . . . Under the leadership of Welles and Murray, a local citizen’s group brought Henry Welles’[s] idea to reality. On Saturday, May 5, 1866, the first complete observance of what is now known as Memorial Day was held in Waterloo.”
Waterloo Memorial Day Centennial Committee, The History and Origin of Memorial Day in Waterloo, New York (Geneva, N.Y.: W. F. Humphrey Press, Inc., 1966), 18.
10 May 1866, Richmond, Virginia
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“The anniversary of the death of Stonewall Jackson was observed to-day by floral decorations of the graves of Confederate soldiers at Hollywood and Oakwood. Both cemeteries were thronged with ladies and their escorts. Several brief addresses were made at each place. Business was generally suspended in the city.”
“In Memory of Stonewall Jackson,” New York Tribune, 11 May 1866.
31 May 1866, Richmond, Virginia
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[During the winter of 1865-66, two men – Rev. Charles D. Minnegrode, of St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, and Captain Frank W. Dawson, “late of the Charleston (S. C.) News and Courier,” met casually in the parlor of Richmond resident Mrs. Charles G. Barney. During that visit, Minnegrode spoke of his German ancestors’ All Saint’s Day custom of annually decorating the graves of family members with flowers – “immortels.” Mrs. Barney, much taken with the concept, began to discuss it with friends in the town, to the end that on 3 May 1866 they formed the Ladies’ Hollywood Memorial Association, with the immediate aim of caring for and commemorating the graves of Confederate soldiers. At a meeting of the Association, the women passed the following resolution:] “All disposed to co-operate with us will repair, in such groups and at such hours as may be convenient, on Thursday, May 31st, 1866, to Hollywood Cemetery, to mark, by every appropriate means in our power, our sense of the heroic services and sacrifices of those who were dear to us in life and we honored in death.”
Hollywood Memorial Association, Our Confederate Dead (Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson, 1896), 5-6.
William A. Blair, Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 59-62.
Caroline E. Janney, Burying the Dead But Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations & The Lost Cause (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 62-64.
9 June 1866, Petersburg, Virginia
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“It was in May of this year 1866 that we inaugurated, in Petersburg, the custom, now universal, of decorating the graves of those who fell in the Civil War. Our intention was simply to lay a token of our gratitude and affection upon the graves of the brave citizens who fell June 9, 1864, in defence of Petersburg . . . .
Mrs. Judge Joynes of Petersburg . . . called the women of Petersburg together . . . and organized them into a memorial association for the express purpose of decorating the graves of the men who had fallen in the late conflict between the North and the South. . . .
June 9 was named as the day for ‘perpetual remembrance.’ Just what was to be done that day was not made public. The Federal Army was still with us, and some apprehension was felt that we might be hindered in our wishes. . . . We were under military rule, and realized the necessity of discreet behavior. . . .
But the anthem written by Mrs. Morrison was deemed too passionate for the hour. We wished to do nothing that might be construed amiss. The Federal soldiers were all around us, looking on respectfully.”
Sara Agnes Rice Pryor, Reminiscences of Peace and War (N.Y.: The Macmillan Co., 1905), 404, 406, 407, 409.
30 May 1868, “Nationwide” Observance by the Grand Army of the Republic
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[In 1866, veterans of the Union army formed the beginnings of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization designed expressly to provide aid, comfort, and political advocacy for veterans’ issues in post-war America. In 1868, the leadership of the G. A. R. sought through the following order to have the various local and regional observances of decorating soldier graves made into something like a national tradition.]
“Headquarters Grand Army Of The Republic
Adjutant-General’s Office, 446 Fourteenth St.
Washington, D. C., May 5, 1868.
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 defence 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 of 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 or 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 remain to us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains, and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; 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, a sacred charge upon a 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 order of— John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief Official:
Wm. T. Collins, A.A.G.
N. P. Chipman, Adjutant-General.”
The National Memorial Day: A Record of Ceremonies over the Graves of Union Soldiers, May 29 and 30, 1869 (Washington [D.C.]: M’Gill & Witherow, 1870).
George Francis Dawson, Life and Services of John A. Logan as Soldier and Statesman (Chicago: Belford, Clarke & Co., 1887), 123-125.
Stuart McConnell, Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).
[Subsequently, the G. A. R. adopted several clarifications of their intent for the national tradition, most of them seeking to preserve the observance to honoring the Union dead alone.]
124. Article XIV.—Chapter V.
The National Encampment hereby establishes a Memorial Day, to be observed by the members of the Grand Army of the Republic, on the thirtieth day of May, annually, in commemoration of the deeds of our fallen comrades. When such day occurs on Sunday, the succeeding day shall be observed, except where, by legal enactment, the preceding day is made a legal holiday, when such day shall be observed. (a-d.)
124a. Memorial Day, Not Decoration Day.
The following was adopted at the Encampment at Baltimore, 1882: “That the Commander-in-Chief be requested to issue a General Order calling the attention of the officers and members of the Grand Army of the Republic, and of the people at large, to the fact that the proper designation of May 30th is Memorial Day, and to request that it may be always so called.”
124.b. Memorial Day was established by Commander-in-Chief John A. Logan, in the following General Order:
At the Encampment held in Washington, D. C., May 11, 1870, Article XIV, was incorporated in the Rules and Regulations:
[See General Order 11, above]
124.c. The following Resolution was adopted by the National Encampment at Providence, 1877:
“Inasmuch as there have been some differences of opinion as to the intent and meaning of Memorial Day, this Encampment hereby calls attention to the language of Chapter V, Article XIV, of the Rules and Regulations, and, therefore, Resolved, That the Grand Army of the Republic seeks thus to preserve the memory of those only who fought in defence of the National Unity.”
The following was adopted at the Encampment at Springfield, Mass., June, 1878:
“Resolved, That all Flags hoisted on Memorial Day, be at half-mast.”
124d. Opinion XLVIII. April 17, 1873. [The following has been reorganized for clarity.]
Is it the duty of Posts or comrades to observe Memorial Day, without any other authorization or direction than that obtained in the Rules and Regulations, Chapter V, Article XIV?
1. Memorial Day — Observance of Memorial Day is obligatory. I answer the first question in general terms in the affirmative. I consider that the Rules and Regulations enjoin upon every Post and comrade the duty of observing Memorial Day, and that this provision creates the duty, whether any orders are issued by Department or national authority or not.
Is it discretionary with Posts and comrades, whether they shall observe Memorial Day ?
2. Private circumstances may excuse a comrade from the observance, but a Post that fails or refuses should be subjected to discipline. The nature of the duty makes each comrade, necessarily, the judge of how he shall perform it. It is analogous to the obligation which he assumes to relieve the wants of a needy comrade, or his duty to attend the meetings of his Post. Each of these duties will be acknowledged by a comrade who feels his responsibility as a member of the Order. Yet, from the nature of the case, no Post can say what private circumstances are sufficient to excuse a member from giving charity in any particular instance, nor whether he properly waives the obligations to attend a meeting in favor of another duty which seems to him to claim the preference. In all these matters the Grand Army must leave the conduct of each comrade to his own sense of right.
In the case of a Post I think somewhat less discretion is allowable. Posts are organized, among other things, for just this purpose. The perpetuation of the memory of our fallen comrades, not only among ourselves, but in the grateful regard of the whole people, whose life they saved, by our annual processions to the resting-places of the heroic dead and the floral decorations of their urns, is one of the most prominent and beautiful objects of our Order, none the less important that it was not inaugurated till after the Grand Army had been some time in existence. I think, therefore, that a Post which should omit this ceremonial repeatedly, or for a frivolous cause, or which should deliberately pass resolutions of contempt for the observance of it—if such a thing can be imagined— would be amenable to discipline by higher authority as properly as if it should fail for a long period to hold meetings, or in its capacity as a Post should commit any other act of insubordination.
Would the failure of a Post to make arrangements for the observance of Memorial Day as a Post, relieve any member of that Post from the duty of its observance ?
3. Where a Post fails to observe the day it is not obligatory on a member of the Post. If the Post to which any comrade belongs were to fail to make arrangements for the observance of the day, I think it would not be obligatory upon such comrade to engage in any public ceremonies in its observance. Yet, if inclination prompts him to join with some other Post, or to assemble with other comrades, or alone to visit and decorate the graves of the fallen, such voluntary service will be a becoming expression of the sentiments which the Grand Army inculcates and fosters.
Do the Rules and Regulations leave the method of the observance of Memorial Day, and the arrangements therefore, to the discretion of Posts and comrades ?
4. The manner or form of the observance [is] left to the Posts. The Rules and Regulations prescribe the observance of the day by the members of the Order. The primary organization of the members is by Posts, and, consequently, in the absence of specific orders or regulations, the duty first devolves upon each Post. It is generally the case throughout the country that there is only one Post in each town or village, and, therefore, the day has been usually observed by each Post in its own way. In cities, where there are more Posts than one, and where there are, perhaps, different cemeteries to be visited, it has been the custom, and an entirely proper one, for several Posts to unite voluntarily in this service.
[Some controversy emerged in later years, focused on the source of John Logan’s inspiration for creating the G. A. R. national tradition. In the first variation, the suggestion for the northern veterans emulating the southern tradition of decoration came to the general from his wife. Years afterward, Mary Logan wrote of her role in suggesting the tradition of Memorial Day to her husband, and she was quite candid about drawing inspiration from what she and others understood to be a southern custom well-established.]
“During this trip we [Mary, her two children and three other companions] visited the churchyards and cemeteries at Richmond, Petersburg, and other points made historic by the struggle which had taken place in and around these cities. In the churchyard near Petersburg we saw hundreds of the graves of Confederate soldiers. These graves had upon them small bleached Confederate flags and faded flowers and wreaths that had been laid upon them by loving hands on the occasion of their Decoration Day. . . .
Upon our return General Logan was much interested in our account of what we had seen and I remarked to him that I had never been so touched as I was by seeing the little flags and the withered flowers that had been laid on these graves. At this General Logan said that it was a beautiful revival of the custom of the ancients in thus preserving the memory of the dead, and that he, as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, would issue an order for the decoration of the graves of Union soldiers. . . .
After much discussion and investigation as to the time of the year when flowers would be in their greatest perfection in the different sections of the country, it was decided that May 30 would probably be the most appropriate time when this ceremony should take place. General Logan's anticipations were fully realized by the universal observance of the day in every State in the Union. The exercises were characterized by patriotic addresses, recitations, music, and ceremonious decoration of the soldiers' graves with flowers. Almost all loyal people participated in the observance of the day devoted to the perpetuation of the memory of the heroic dead.”
Mary Simmerson Cunningham Logan, Reminiscences of a Soldier’s Wife: An Autobiography (N.Y.: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1913), 242, 243, 245.
“It is no longer a question of who was right and who was wrong in that most regrettable conflict of history. Time and the kindly spirit of a great people have eradicated the bitterness of a generation ago, and although Decoration Day primarily belongs to the Grand Army of the Republic and the dead soldiers of the Federal Army, we have one great class of heroes—the soldier boys who laid down their lives for what they each felt to be a sacred cause. . . . With this in mind it is especially pleasant to know that the idea of Memorial Day was unwittingly suggested by the devotion of the people of the South to their heroes. In the early spring of 1868 I was one of a party . . . to make a pilgrimage to the battlefields of Virginia. . . . [While inspecting a church and graveyard in Petersburg] I noticed that many of [the graves] had been strewn with beautiful blossoms and decorated with small flags of the dead Confederacy. The sentimental idea so enwrapped me that I inspected them more closely and discovered that they were every one the graves of soldiers who had died for the Southern cause. The idea seemed to me to be a beautiful tribute to the soldier martyrs, and grew upon me while I was returning to Washington. . . . [A]s soon as he met me at the station I told him of the graves of the soldiers in the cemetery in the churchyard at Petersburg. He listened with great interest, and then said
‘What a splendid idea! We will have it done all over the country, and the Grand Army shall do it. I will issue the order at once for a National Memorial Day for the decoration of the graves of all those noble fellows who died for their country.’”
Mrs. John A. [Mary Simmerson Cunningham] Logan, in Cullings from the Confederacy, comp. by Nora Fontaine M. Davidson (Washington, D.C.: The Rufus H. Darby Printing Co., 1903), 156-157.
J. L. Underwood, The Women of the Confederacy (N.Y.: The Neale Publishing Co., 1906), 290-291.
[The second variation credits another woman, Mrs. H. G. Kimball, who had been similarly inspired by the southern tradition.]
“It has been said that the suggestion that the Grand Army establish such an observance in memory of the Union dead was made by a private soldier who was a native of Germany; but I think the order of General Logan was issued at the solicitation of Mrs. Martha J. Kimball, who recently died at Philadelphia, and who was one of the most efficient and devoted of the many Northern women who engaged in the hospital service of the Union Army during the war.
She had observed, while travelling in the South, how the graves of the Confederate soldiers were decorated by the Southern women; and, being pained at the lack of similar tokens of respect in the North, earnestly brought the matter to the attention of General Logan, with the result that the 30th of May was established as a “Memorial Day.” The time is appropriate for its ceremonies.”
Josiah H. Benton, Jr., What Women Did For the War, and What the War Did For Women: A Memorial Day Address, Delivered before the Soldiers’ Club at Wellesley, Mass., May 30, 1894 (Boston: n.p., 1894), 2.
“The credit of first suggesting “Memorial Day” belongs to Mrs. S. Kimball, of West Philadelphia, Penn. The suggestion was made by her in 1868 to General John A. Logan, then commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. Mr. and Mrs. Kimball were old friends of General Logan. On their return home from a southern tour, Mrs. Kimball wrote to General Logan stating that she had particularly noticed the southern women decorating the graves of their dead fallen in battle, and suggested to him that, as the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, he should have our heroic soldiers, whose lonely graves were many, scattered and unmarked, remembered in the same beautiful way. The General was deeply impressed with the idea. Soon afterward he wrote Mrs. Kimball, thanking her for the suggestion, and stating that he felt that such a touching tribute to his dead comrades would meet with general favor. The order formulated and sent out was well received, and practically adopted by the Grand Anny of the Republic, greatly to General Logan's satisfaction, as evidenced in the following letter to Mrs. Kimball, dated Washington, July 9, 1868:
My Dear Friend — It is very gratifying to me to hear, as I do day after day, from my friends, of the reception of my Order No. 11. As you observe, the custom is a beautiful one, and I am confident that it will not only never pass away from the recollection of the American people, but will more deeply ingraft itself in their hearts, and each returning anniversary of sacred decoration will increase in impressive devotion to our patriot dead; and the crowns we weave for them of never-fading laurel and the beautiful flowers strewn over their graves give birth to sentiments of love and of honor, which bind the past, the present, and the future in one continuous chain of admiration, that the life and service of even the humblest private shall never be forgotten.
John A. Logan.”
“How the Observance of Memorial Day was Suggested,” in New York Education; Devoted to New York State Educational Work and Interests, ed. C. E. Franklin (Albany: New York Education, 1898), I:535-536.
[Lastly, the historian for the G. A. R., Robert Beath, strongly asserted that it was not a woman but a Union veteran who had first suggested the ritual be adopted by his organization.]
“Early in May, 1868, Adjutant-General Chipman received a letter from some comrade then living, as he remembers, in Cincinnati, in which the writer referred to the fact that he had served as a private soldier in the Union Army; that in his native country, Germany, it was the custom of the people to assemble in the spring-time and scatter flowers upon the graves of the dead. He suggested that the Grand Army of the Republic inaugurate such an observance in memory of the Union dead. General Chipman thought the suggestion most opportune, and at once made a rough draft of a General Order covering this subject, and laid it, with the letter referred to, before General Logan. General Logan warmly approved the Order, himself adding several paragraphs. The date selected, May 30, was with the idea of using one of the spring months because of their poetical associations, and also to make it late in the last spring month, that it might be possible to find flowers in the New England and extreme Northern States. . . .
It is a matter of great regret that the name of the comrade who first called the attention of General Chipman to this subject cannot now be recalled. During the war there had been many instances of the decoration of soldiers' graves, and earlier than the date of this Order a “Decoration Day” had been generally observed by ex-Confederates in the Southern States. General John B. Murray, then a resident of Waterloo, New York, on Sunday, May 27th, 1866, marshalled a number of ex-soldiers in that village who decorated the graves of their dead comrades amid appropriate ceremonies. General Murray claimed during his life that he had spoken of this to General Logan at one of the Army re-unions. It is also stated that Posts in Cincinnati, upon the suggestion of T. C. Campbell, afterwards Quartermaster-General, paraded in 1867 for the purpose of decorating the graves of their dead comrades. General Chipman, however, distinctly remembers the incident as already related, which directly resulted in the issue of the General Orders instituting a Memorial Day.”
Robert B. Beath, History of the Grand Army of the Republic (New York: Bryan, Taylor & Co., 1889), 90-91.
[The possibility remains, however, that none of these three variations are particularly relevant. The entire basis for the claim of Carbondale, Illinois, to be the site of the first Memorial Day observance rests on the fact that John A. Logan himself had officiated
over their 1866 ceremony, and had been the chief speaker of the day. The argument
runs that Logan carried the memory of the day with him until assuming the office of commander-in-chief, whereupon he acted to make the Carbondale observance universal among the G. A. R.]