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Sorry, Ben, I’m still in a Memorial Day State of Mind.

arlington_memorialdayI was surprised when a friend of mine on Facebook (a real, actual friend) put up a post that the first Memorial Day was started by former slaves on May, 1, 1865 in Charleston, S.C. to honor 257 Union soldiers. Their bodies had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp, but the now-freed ex-slaves dug up the bodies and worked for 2 weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. They then held a parade of 10,000 people led by 2,800 Black children where they marched, sang and celebrated.

Another account of a first Memorial Day also occurred in the South on April 25, 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. They saw that the nearby graves of Union soldiers were neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed by this, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves, too.

Other cities in the on both sides of the Mason Dixon line claim to be the originators of Memorial Day in 1866. Vying for the “title” are Macon and Columbus, Ga. and Richmond, Va. The village of Boalsburg, Pa., claims it began there two years earlier, and a stone in a Carbondale, Ill., cemetery carries the statement that the first Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866. Up to 25 places have claimed to the birthplaces of Memorial Day, many of them in the South where most of the war dead were buried.

Gen. Logan’s (Carbondale, Il.) order for his posts to decorate graves in 1868 “with the choicest flowers of springtime” urged: “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no 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.”

Many Southern states including Mississippi, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Louisiana, also have their own diverse dates for honoring the Confederate dead, generally in the spring.

In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson cleared up conflicting claims by declaring Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. There, a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Waterloo actually closed businesses and flew flags at half-staff in observance of the event, and claims that earlier observances in other places were either informal, not community-wide or one-time events.

The first official “Decoration Day” came about through action of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1868, a veterans group, who declared that henceforth May 30 would be set aside for the decoration of graves of fallen soldiers. This was the first time ceremonies were held at Arlington Cemetery on the grounds of the former home of fallen hero General Robert E. Lee. From the mansion’s veranda, General and Mrs. Ulysses Grant presided over the event, which included prayers and hymn singing. Children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and GAR members walked throughout the cemetery placing flowers on graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. For the ceremony, flags were place at each grave site, a tradition which has continued.

Interestingly, Decoration Day started out to honor Civil War veterans. (Were veterans of the Spanish-American War included after their war, too?) It was not until after World War I the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it some places it may be called Decoration Day. (I still remember it being called Decoration Day, though haven’t heard that term in eons. But I’m fairly old.) The Act also placed it on the last Monday in May, in line with other federally enacted holidays.

One hundred fifty years ago in May 1864, the first military burials took place at Arlington National Cemetery, one month prior to its establishment as a national cemetery. In the oldest section of the cemetery are the graves of Union soldiers Privates Christman, McKinney, and Reeves, interred May 13. Lee’s lands and mansion had been occupied since 1861 by Union Forces in two forts, and in 1864 the land was purchased for non-payment of taxes in person by Mrs. Lee by a federal agency for “government use, for war, military, charitable and educational purposes”.

It was Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs who appropriated the grounds June 15, 1864 for use as a military cemetery. “His intention was to render the house uninhabitable should the Lee family ever attempt to return. A stone and masonry burial vault in the rose garden, 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep, and containing the remains of 1,800 Bull Run casualties, was among the first monuments to Union dead erected under Meigs’ orders.” He and his wife are buried near Arlington House, earlier known as the Custis Lee Mansion.


Now Arlington Cemetery covers 624 acres and cradles the remains of up to 300,000 men and women. For those who have never seen it, no photo can do it justice. It is literally a rolling sea of white headstones in perfect alignment from any angle. Just as the sea can be awe-inspiring in its vastness, so is it also to think that this many people served our country in war, many dying on foreign soil.