Memorial Day: How It Began as a More Exclusive Holiday

Memorial Day, an annual holiday that falls on the last Monday in May, is observed nationwide to honor those who served in the Armed Forces.  

While the day has evolved into barbeque and shopping day for most Americans today, at its inception, Memorial Day was actually not broadly celebrated or as focused as it is today.  

The origins of the federal holiday derived from the late nineteenth century via the efforts of veterans from the American Civil War.  A union veterans group known as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) held what is considered the first major Memorial Day observance back in 1868.  Originally called "Decoration Day," the event involved decorating the graves of war dead with flowers and was planned for May 30 due to it being a time when flowers bloomed.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, this large scale observance of Decoration Day was held at Arlington Cemetery, the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that had been transformed into a cemetery for union dead.

"After speeches, children from the Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns," noted the VA.

More local observances, including one taking place at Waterloo, New York in 1866, claim to be the first Decoration Day. Others, including a May 1, 1865 observance held by about 10,000 black and white residents of Charleston, S.C., also lay claim to being the first.

Because of its focus on union dead, members of the Old Confederacy often did not observe it, reported Laura Fitzpatrick of Time Magazine.

"At the outset, Memorial Day was so closely linked with the Union cause that many Southern states refused to celebrate it," wrote Fitzpatrick.  "Most Southern states still recognize Confederate Memorial Day as an official holiday, and many celebrate it on the June birthday of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy."

As the twentieth century came, Decoration Day was changed to Memorial Day, and after the First World War the meaning of the holiday was expanded to include American dead from all wars, not just the Civil War.

In 1971 Congress passed a law making Memorial Day a national holiday and having it be on the last Monday in May.

"Memorial Day is celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery each year with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave," noted PBS.  "Traditionally, the President or Vice President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. About 5,000 people attend the ceremony annually."

At the May 30, 1868 major observance at Arlington Cemetery, James A. Garfield delivered a speech wherein the future president spoke about the fallen.

"We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens," said Garfield.

"For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue."