The first Memorial Day

Memorial Day, celebrated today in the United States, wasn’t always called that.  It was named Decoration Day by the man who started it, General John A. Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of veterans of the Civil War Union forces.  The celebration was first observed on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery.  It was renamed Memorial Day in 1967.

Here’s the original Proclamation that started the ball rolling.

General Order No. 11
Headquarters, Grand Army of the Republic
Washington, D.C., May 5, 1868

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 defense 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 or 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 foe? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a 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 of 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 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 in us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; 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 as sacred charges upon the 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 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,

N.P. CHIPMAN, Adjutant General

I’m far from my dead comrades in arms this day.  I, and they, served in another country, on another continent, many years ago.  Nevertheless, I shall remember them;  and I’ll join with my new fellow citizens in the USA to remember this country’s fallen.  May they all rest in peace.



  1. A friend once told me that in a small rural cemetery near Sedalia Missouri all the graves are decorated with American flags except one. The exception fought for the Axis in World War 1 then immigrated to the United States. There was no doubt that he was a veteran of a foreign war. The local VFW welcomed him as a member. Eventually he passed away and was interred among the people he had grown to love.

    Even though he had become an American citizen, the VFW felt it would not be proper to decorate his grave with an American flag on Memorial Day. He had not fought for the United States. So every year, among the sea of stars and stripes, flies a solitary German Imperial flag to honor and remember a former enemy who had become a close friend.

  2. I was once riding a bus in Washington DC, and I saw a poster with the dates of holidays and thus reduced service. It was in both English and Spanish and I had a surge of resentment at multi-touch bafflegab. Then I sawdust Memorial Day in Spanish is Dia de los Caidos, or Day of the Fallen. A fine phrasing.

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