The American Civil War witnessed unprecedented carnage and death with estimates placed at 620,000 dead soldiers from both sides. This had a traumatic effect on life and communities and led to a thought that the dead should be commemorated in some form or the other.
In 1864, soon after the Battle of Gettysburg, women of Boalsburg, Pennsylvania placed flowers on the graves of the dead followed next year by women decorating graves of soldiers buried in Vicksburg Cemetery, Mississippi. In the same month, Civil War veterans marched through the town in Carbondale, Illinois to Woodlawn Cemetery where they were addressed by Union war hero Major John A. Logan. This can be said to be the very first organised Memorial Day service in the USA.
However, Waterloo, New York that held an annual community service on May 5, 1866 won recognition as the birthplace of Memorial Day even though many towns at that time vied for this singular honour.
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day because of the early practice of decorating graves of fallen soldiers with flowers, wreaths and flags. On May 30, 1868, Gen John Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of former Union soldiers and sailors proclaimed observance of Memorial Day to commemorate the sacrifices made by soldiers during the Civil War.
The first celebration was a grand yet solemn affair with former General and Ohio Congressman James Garfield making a speech at the Arlington National Cemetery. Almost 5,000 participants that day helped decorate more than 20,000 graves of Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.
From then on till today, Memorial Day is celebrated at the Arlington National Cemetery every year with a ceremony in which the President and the Vice President lay wreaths at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A small American flag is also put on the graves. More than 5,000 people attend the service.
New York was the first State to declare Memorial Day as a legal holiday in 1873. By the early 1900s, other States had followed suit. After World War I, the principle of Memorial Day changed slightly. Instead of honouring the soldiers who laid down their lives in the Civil War only, the scope was broadened to include those who died in all America’s wars.
In 1971, the Uniform Holiday Act was passed by Congress that designated the last Monday of May as Memorial Day. However, there is also a Confederate Memorial Day when a few Southern states separately honour the Confederate war dead. The date differs between States – January 19 in Texas; third Monday in Jan. in Arkansas; fourth Monday in Apr. in Alabama and Mississippi; April 26 in Florida and Georgia; May 10 in North and South Carolina; last Monday in May in Virginia; and June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee.