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Origins of U.S. Memorial Day

Since Memorial Day in the U.S. is right around the corner—the official start of summer—I thought I’d touch on how this holiday originally came to be.
At the start it was called Decoration Day, “a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service”. But how did it start?
Stories claim women’s groups in the South started decorating graves even before the Civil War ended. A hymn was published in 1867, called “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet. The song’s dedication read, “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead”.
The official start of Memorial Day was declared by President Lyndon Johnson in May of 1966, but it’s hard to find conclusive origins of the day of remembrance.

It’s likely it had many separate starts. Many towns planned spontaneous gatherings to honor their war dead in the 1860’s. General Logan officially proclaimed the day in 1868. It was a “coming together to honor those who gave their all”.

General Logan was national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. He proclaimed the day would be observed on May 30, 1868. Flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

New York was the first state to recognize the holiday in 1873 and by 1890 it was observed by all of the northern states.

The South honored their war dead on separate days until after World War I. At that time the holiday not only covered Civil War dead, but those who died in all our country’s wars.

Today, we celebrate Memorial Day on the last Monday in May. Though several Southern states still have a separate day to honor Confederate war dead.

In 1915, a poem by Moina Michael called “In Flanders Fields”, was inspired by this American holiday.

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

This Memorial Day, be sure to take time out to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.



  1. Very interesting and what a beautiful poem the way it covers all of our heroes, This past year I was able to put my Uncle Ova Madsen into the Purple Heart Museum who was a real hero at just 24 years of age when he died to save the lives of the 17 men he led in Germany. I salute all those veterans alive and dead who honored us by serving in our armed forces.

  2. Paisley, you and your family must be very proud.

  3. Kaylea Cross says:

    Hi Susan! Love this post–but you know I love anything to do with the Civil War. We don’t celebrate Memorial Day up here in Canada, but we do have Remembrance Day (Nov. 11th) in lieu of Veteran’s Day. That’s the day I’m most proud to be a Canadian.

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Kaylea! I’m sure every country has it’s version of Memorial Day. We should never forget those who fought for us.

  5. Hi Susan,
    Great blog. In Australia we remember our veterans and their sacrifices on Remembrance Day, November 11th, and ANZAC Day, 25th April. Although my personal feeling is we should all remember our veterans and their gallant deeds and sacrifices every day.

    Interesting that you quoted the poem by Moina Michael titled In Flanders Fields. I haven’t heard of it before, but it is very poignant.

    There was also a poem written in May 1915, by a Candian soldier, Lt.Col John McCrae who was serving in France at the time. His was titled In Flanders Fields also. It is very famous in Canada, England and Australia.

    In Flanders fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
    Scarce heard amid the guns below.

    We are the Dead. Short days ago
    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
    In Flanders fields.

    Take up our quarrel with the foe:
    To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields.


  6. Cynthia Owens says:

    Susan, what a lovely post. As someone already pointed out, we have Remembrance Day here in Canada. I always remember my late father’s insistence that we all observe the two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. on November 11th. He didn’t fight in the war, but he knew many friends and relatives who did. It was he who taught me respect for the men who made sacrifices for our country.

  7. Great post, Susan.

    I had no idea the tradition of decorating graves actually began before the Civil War ended!

    My boys are marching with the cub scouts in our town’s Memorial Day parade this year so we’re really looking forward to the holiday.

  8. Hi, Margaret, Cynthia and Nicole! Thanks for stopping by!

    Margaret, that poem me the chills! Very touching!

    Cynthia, it is important that we remember the sacrifices of these brave men and women. It’s a shame people forget because of the three-day weekend here in the U.S. and concentrate more on barbecues and trips to the beach.

    I always thought the day started after the Civil War too, Nic! We have several parades and ceremonies locally too. It’s good that at least some people remember the meaning of the day.

  9. Susan, what a moving post. I had forgotten that I memorized “In Flander’s Fields” when I was in junior high school. After all these years I have forgotten all but the first two lines. I don’t know which one I memorized, but I believe it was the one Margaret posted. Nice to see our Aussie friend commenting as well as our Canadian friends. Welcome!

  10. Thanks, Caroline! It was years ago when I got involved in Civil War reenacting and did the ceremonies at the gravesites that I realized how much making the day part of a holiday weekend had taken away from the original meaning.

  11. Good morning all,
    Yes it is a shame when such an important day becomes incorported into a long weekend. Cheapens its value in my opinion. It happens here in Australia too.
    Our returned veterans and those who sacrificed their all, deserve better. Surely a memorial day once a year to pay our respects is not too much to ask? But obviously, for some ungrateful people it is.
    Susan, this Civil War re-enactment sounds very interesting.

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