We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance … Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.
Those are the words of Gen. John Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), who declared that May 30 would be a day to decorate the graves of Civil War soldiers with flowers.
May 30, 1868, about 5,000 attended a Decoration Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Members of the GAR and children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home placed flowers on Union and Confederate graves.
New York officially recognized Decoration Day in 1873, and all the Northern states had followed by 1890. Most of the South honored Confederate dead on a separate day until after World War I, when the day expanded to honor those who died in all American wars.
The term “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882 and became common after World War II. A law in 1968 made it the holiday’s official name and moved it to the last Monday in May. Some groups advocate moving Memorial Day back to its traditional May 30 date to remind the country of the day’s true meaning.
To that end, the National Moment of Remembrance Act, passed in December 2000, encourages Americans to observe a minute of silence and remembrance at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day.
Cities across the country held local observances before the one at Arlington in 1868 (read about those on the Veterans Administration website), with the official Memorial Day birthplace award going to Waterloo, NY: In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson made the designation 100 years after the town’s first Memorial Day on May 5, 1866.
I’ll be back later this week with some tips for honoring your military ancestors by learning about their lives and service to their country.