The origin of Memorial Day goes back to the mid 1800s and was initially known as Decoration Day. It was a moment in time to recognize and honor the nation’s lost heroes of the Civil War. Their graves were decorated and adorned with flowers and flags.
The day was first observed widely on May 30, 1868 to remember the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, by declaration of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic.
The first celebration of Decoration Day was marked with a speech by General James Garfield at Arlington National Cemetery. After General Garfield spoke, 5,000 participants helped decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.
Local observances were celebrated throughout America after the 1868 celebration sparked inspiration to act and remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
Under the course of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the federal government declared Waterloo, New York the official birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966. The reason? Waterloo first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866; thereafter, the town made Memorial Day a yearly, community-wide event. Businesses closed, and residents honored soldiers by decorating graves with flowers and flags.
By the latter half of the 1800s, the entire country started to take heed to what smaller towns across America were doing to honor the fallen. After World War I, observances began to honor every soldier killed in all of America’s wars. Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday in 1971.
Memorial Day celebrations today take place at Arlington National Cemetery with a ceremony that honors every soldier laid to rest there. A small American flag is placed on each and every grave.
Customarily, the president or vice-president gives a speech in honor of the contributions of the dead. It is also customary that a wreath is placed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Annually, about 5,000 people attend the ceremony.