From Poppies to Parades — How Memorial Day Came to Be

Today we remember those we’ve lost and those who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. Many people recognize Memorial Day in different ways, paying thanks to our veterans, visiting with family and remembering those we’ve lost.

Here are a few things you might not have known about this special day and how it came to be:

  • Also known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the U.S. observed every year on the last Monday of May. But did you know the holiday was held on May 30 from 1868 to 1970?
  • Some believe that the annual cemetery decoration practice began before the American Civil War. Annual Decoration Days for particular cemeteries are still held on a Sunday in late spring or early summer in some rural areas of the American South.
  • On June 3, 1861, Warrenton, Virginia was the location of the first Civil War soldier’s grave ever to be decorated, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper article in 1906. However, Boalsburg, Pennsylvania promotes itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day, after ladies decorated soldiers’ graves on July 4, 1864.
  • In April 1865, following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and after more than 600,000 soldiers of both sides died in the Civil War, memorialization took on new significance. Under the leadership of women during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves took shape. In 1865, the federal government began creating national military cemeteries for the Union war dead.
  • In 1868, General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois, established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the Union war dead with flowers.
  • In 1915, following the Second Battle of Ypres, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a physician with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, wrote the poem, “In Flanders Fields.” Its opening lines refer to the fields of poppies that grew among the soldiers’ graves in Flanders. In 1918, inspired by the poem, YWCA worker Moina Michael attended a YWCA Overseas War Secretaries’ conference wearing a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed over two dozen more to others present. In 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance.
  • On May 26, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson designated an “official” birthplace of the holiday by signing the presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, New York, as the holder of the title. This action followed House Concurrent Resolution 587, in which the 89th Congress had officially recognized that the patriotic tradition of observing Memorial Day had begun one hundred years prior in Waterloo, New York. The village credits druggist Henry C. Welles and county clerk John B. Murray as the founders of the holiday.

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