Decoration Day, 1868

By Maureen A. Taylor

History intersects at ironic moments that make the past very interesting. Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day, is one of those moments.

All over the United States on this day, towns hold parades and locals decorate veterans’ graves. This stereo image from the Library of Congress depicts the first Decoration Day, held at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868.

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A who’s who of national figures gathered to pay their respects to the Union soldiers buried on the property of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. That land also has a connection to the American Revolution.

It originally belonged to George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington and the adopted son of George Washington.


When he died, the land was owned by his daughter, the wife of Robert E. Lee. During the Civil War, the property was used for military purposes. The US government bought it at a tax sale and dedicated 200 acres for a national cemetery. Approximately 16,000 Civil War soldiers are buried there.

The reviewing stand featured flags, bunting and touches of black. Two future presidents were in the stand that day.

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Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. James A. Garfield are in this photo. Grant served as President from 1869 to 1877; Garfield served only 200 days before his assassination in 1881.

Garfield, who was a member of Congress, delivered the oration. He began with the following:

“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden it must be here beside the graves of 15,000 men, whose lives were more significant than speech and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung.” (The New York Herald, May 31, 1868, page 10)

There is debate over which city held the very first Decoration Day. In 1868, May 30th was selected because it didn’t commemorate any battles and because flowers are in bloom. The last Monday in May didn’t officially become Memorial Day until 1971.

Take a look at your family photo collections and see if you have photos of any veterans in your family. I’m going to post my pictures of those individuals on my social media pages to honor them.

Solve your family photo mysteries with these books by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album