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How Decoration Day Became Memorial Day

Updated on May 24, 2015

Name and Focus of Holiday Changed Over the Decades

Today Memorial Day is the day we have set aside to honor those who died defending America in time of war. In November we celebrate Veterans Day in which we honor all of our Veterans, living and dead, while the Memorial Day holiday is specifically to honor those who gave their lives in battle.

However, just as Veterans Day began as Armistice Day in which people paused to honor the dead of World War I, so too, did Memorial Day begin as Decoration Day a day to honor the dead of the Civil War.

While the 1971 Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, changing the name from Decoration Day to Memorial Day and extending it to honor the dead of all wars specifically recognizes the city of Waterloo, New York as the place where the holiday started, many still believe that the day began with the practice of women in the Confederacy decorating the graves of their fallen soldiers in the spring.

There are references to this practice in the South even before the war ended.

Grave of a Veteran decorated with a flag on Memorial Day
Grave of a Veteran decorated with a flag on Memorial Day | Source

Decoration Day Began With Southern Women Decorating the Graves of Confederate Soldiers

Of course, the practice decorating graves of deceased loved ones is found throughout history and throughout the world. When tragedy strikes a community or nation it is not uncommon for the community to honor their deceased heroes as a community.

Therefore, it is likely that the practice of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers was practiced in both North and South from the beginning.

A search of ProQuest's Historic New York Times for the decade 1860 - 1869 yields many references for the query Confederate Graves from 1864 onward.

However, a similar query for Union Graves yields nothing prior to the call by General John A. Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (a Union Civil War Veterans group similar to today's American Legion) to set aside May 30, 1869 as a day to honor the Civil War dead at, the then new, Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

However, one has to remember that, with the Civil War recently over, readers were interested in what was going on in the South.

During the Civil War northerners had been cut off from news of every day life in the South during the war and reporters from northern newspapers were just now returning and looking for stories.

Also, many of the articles appearing in the New York Times dealt with the fact that these gatherings to decorate graves were taking place in violation of orders against such public assemblies by the Union Army of occupation.

Thus, while such gatherings in the North may have been common and ordinary and therefore not newsworthy, they were newsworthy in the South for a number of reasons. The first being one of tension between the occupying military command and the recently conquered civilian population. They could also be viewed as evidence of continued resistance with the potential for more trouble in the future.

Finally, there was the human interest angle focusing on what daily life was like for their recent foes. Thus, it is possible that graves of war dead were being decorated on an annual basis in both North and South but only in the South was it considered worth reporting.

Because the decorating of graves in the South was recorded and reported, it now appears that the holiday and tradition originated in the South.

In any event the 1869 observance in Washington, was instigated by the North.

While the focus was on the Union dead, especially the thousands of Union veterans buried in Washington's new Arlington National Cemetery, there was a recognition of the losses of life by Confederate soldiers.

These Confederate dead included those who were buried in a separate section of Arlington Cemetery.

There was also some attempt to reach out and begin the process of reconciliation between the two parts of the nation which were so recently at war. This can be seen in the speeches of Samuel Fisher and other Federal officials speaking at the event which was attended by President Grant, members of Congress and the Cabinet and other dignitaries.

Links to My Other Veteran's Day & Memorial Day Hubs

The Candle in the Window In the western New York city of Canandaigua a candle still glows in the front window in the home of a young man who went off to fight in World War I and never returned.

Veteran's Day - Audie Murphy Movie Star and War Hero The late Audie Murphy not only played war heroes in movies but was a war hero himself. He even played himself in the movie about his heroic acts in World War II.

Veteran's Day November 11th A history of the origins of the Veteran's Day holiday and why it is observed on November 11th

Memorial Day and Decoration Day Explanation and history behind the two names for the same holiday.

Some Smoking War Tales A few short tales about cigarettes and war

© 2007 Chuck Nugent


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    • profile image

      jillian provost 8 years ago

      hey hey hey im doin a prodject on this stuff - jillian p

    • jimmythejock profile image

      James Paterson 10 years ago from Scotland

      Winston Churchill "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. " truer words were never spoken, great hub chuck.....jimmy