History of Memorial Day

1864 Boalsburg, Pennsylvania

In October 1864, three women from Boalsburg walked to the local cemetery and placed flowers and wreaths upon the graves of two local men who died as a result of their service to the Union during the Civil War. One, Pvt. Amos Myers, was killed on the 3rd day at Gettysburg in 1863. The other was Dr. Reuben Hunter, who died of disease on September 19, 1864. As the women, Emma Hunter, Sophie Keller, and Elizabeth Myers placed their flowers, they had the idea to decorate the graves of all the soldiers. They agreed that they should return and again decorate the graves on July 4, 1865. A celebration at Boalsburg, Pennsylvania has taken place each and every year since.

This year on Memorial Day, 2000, a life-size statue in bronze will be dedicated to the three women for what they began 136 years ago to give recognition to the women who were responsible for giving birth to Memorial Day.

1865 Columbus and Vicksburg, Mississippi and Lynchburg, Richmond, and Petersburg, Virginia

Graves of fallen soldiers were decorated.

1865 Jackson, Mississippi

Sue Landon Vaughn, a descendent of President John Adams, put out a call to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers on April 26, 1865.

April 25, 1866 Columbus, Mississippi

Four women of Columbus gathered on April 25, 1866, to honor those men who had died in the Battle of Shiloh. They laid flowers on the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers alike, despite protests from the men in the Union-occupied Columbus. This act of honoring soldiers from both sides of the war had far-reaching consequences in a country still divided; as people read about the women they started changing their attitudes toward reconciliation. This ceremony also inspired writer Francis Miles Finch to write a poem entitled "The Blue and the Gray" which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and played an important role in increasing public support of the holiday.

April 29, 1866 Carbondale, Illinois

Three Civil War veterans were so moved by a woman and two children who came to the Crab Orchard Christian Church to lay flowers and clean the burial plot of an unmarked grave that they vowed to clean the other veterans' graves after church. They then decided this should be done in the larger cemetery in Carbondale. Through the work of an impromptu committee, an area-wide observance took place on April 29, 1866, when 219 men marched to the cemetery and Major General John A. Logan gave an eloquent address.

May 5, 1866 Waterloo, New York

The village of Waterloo, which was named the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1967 by President Johnson, honored its fallen soldiers on May 5, 1866 by closing businesses, flying flags at half staff, decorating graves of soldiers, and having ceremonies at cemeteries.

May 30, 1866 Charleston, South Carolina

African-American school children decorated with flowers four trenches that had served as graves for several Union soldiers.

May 5, 1868 Washington, D.C.

General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, ordered, "The 30th day of May is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country…Let no ravages of time testify to coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided Republic." Although from the beginning many people referred to the holiday as Decoration Day, General Logan made it clear that the most appropriate name was Memorial Day.

May 30, 1868 Arlington, Virginia

Congressman James A. Garfield, later to become President, was the first speaker at the the first formal and official observance of Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery.

1873 Albany, New York

New York was the first state to declare Memorial Day a legal holiday. Other states soon followed in setting aside this day to honor the dead.

June 28, 1968 Washington, D.C.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation setting federal celebrations of Memorial Day for the last Monday in May.

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