|Placing flowers on the graves of loved ones is a tradition too old in Western tradition to
point finger at one place and time and say: "it started here with this person." The choice of an arbitrary date whether the 30th of May or the last Monday of the month is only somewhat easier to credit. There are several versions concerning the origins of Memorial Day, albeit all begin at the end of the American Civil War.|
One version suggests that some soldiers observed a woman and two children cleaning a weed choked grave and laying fresh flowers. They were so moved, the story goes, that they vowed to establish a national Decoration Day, as it was once
called, and to honor their fallen comrades through similar acts of devotion. That is not too fanciful a notion, for it was veterans who have built many of the memorials to the war dead from many of the conflicts this country has been party to--partly as a catharsis and partly so that those who come after will not forget. The main of this version, however, is the idea that men and women were already assuming responsibility of honoring the dead, only an arbitrary date of observance
and a ceremony were lacking.
Another version suggests that Memorial Day began with the women of both the North and South meeting to exchange their services in the effort of decorating the graves of the dead of both sides. Born in a spirit of cooperation and healing for their mutual loss, they had already begun grave site preservation and decoration at the close of the American Civil War. Indeed, Women's Auxillaries of this kind were prominent in both the North and South throughout the war and post-war years for support of the troops and relief of families bereft of husbands and fathers. It is believed that the date of May 30th was chosen by a Virginia woman known in the women's movement, Cassandra Oliver Moncure, who was responsible for coordinating the efforts of several groups into a single ceremony on that date. According to the story, Mrs. Moncure was of French extraction and chose the date of May 30th because it corresponded to the Day of Ashes in France in the belief that it would add solemnity to the occassion. The Day of Ashes commemorated the return of the remains of Napoleon Bonapart to France from St. Helena.
A third version of the story begins more precisely in 1865 with Henry C. Welles, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, NY. At a social gathering, it is said, he first mentioned the notion that honor should be shown to the patriotic dead of the Civil War by decorating their graves. In the Spring of 1866, he again mentioned this subject to General John B. Murray, Seneca County Clerk. General Murray embraced the idea and a committee was formulated to plan a day devoted to honoring the dead. Townspeople adopted the idea wholeheartedly. Wreaths, crosses and bouquets were made for each veteran's
grave. The village was decorated with flags at half mast and draped with evergreen boughs and mourning black streamers. On May 5, 1866, civic societies joined the procession to the three existing cemetaries and were led by veterans marching to martial music. At each cemetary there were impressive and lengthy services including speeches by General Murray and a local clergyman. The ceremonies were repeated on May 5, 1867, and Memorial Day observance has continued in Waterloo, NY uninterrupted to the present though now on the 30th of the month as it is observed elsewhere.
The first official recognition of a Memorial Day was made by General John A. Logan, first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (see The Order; the Grand Army of the Republic was an organization of Civil War veterans). On May 5, 1868, he issued General Order No. 11 establishing May 30th as a day of honoring the dead. The order required all men throughout his organization to spend some portion of the day policing the gravesites and decorating them and observing such ceremonies as their duties allowed. It was hoped that it would spark a similar interest in the general population of this country.
May 30th has stood as the official day of observance until more recent times. In an effort to economize and make more efficient the work week, several national days of observance were changed from taking place on actual dates to occurring on the nearer Monday of that date, thus creating a three day weekend. In this instance, Memorial Day is now observed as the last Monday of May--May 26th this year. It might be begging the question to suggest that this change removed from the day the last vestige of what it should be--a day of family and respect for those who have served this country--making it something more selfish without connection to the past.
Subsequent to the writing of this history, a guest to my page contributed the following additional story concerning the origins of Memorial Day. Because of the length of the material, I present it on a separate page accessed here.