Memorial Day

The Origins

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), issued General Order No. 11 designating May 30 “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”  Logan’s General Order, his Memorial Day Order, established Memorial Day as a national holiday. 

An online search reveals that over two dozen communities claim the honor of having observed the first Memorial Day. Recent research, however, indicates that only one of them, Columbus, Georgia, has documentation to back up its claim that its observation was the inspiration for the modern holiday.

In their book, The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday in America, authors Daniel Bellware and Richard Gardiner, Ph.D. report that in March 1866, Mary Ann Williams of Columbus, Georgia, placed a letter in her hometown paper inviting the women of the South to join Columbus “in setting aside one day annually, as a Memorial Day holiday.” (Columbus State University, 2014, p 37) This letter, which suggested April 26 for an annual observance, was carried in newspapers across the South and even in some Northern cities.

The Reading, Pennsylvania, Times reported on May 10, 1866, that April 26, “has been generally observed throughout the South by the wives, mothers, and daughters of the section in ornamenting the graves of their dead soldiers…with the intention of perpetuating it in future years.”

The paper also states that “the proposition to inaugurate this memorial day…originated with a lady in Columbus, Georgia.” Between April 26, 1866, and June 9, 1866, memorial day observances were held in every Southern state.

Two years later, on May 5, 1868, John A. Logan, as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic [a Union veterans’ organization], issued General Order No. 11. This order designated May 30, 1868, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion….” General Order No. 11 established Memorial Day as a national holiday.

In her autobiography Logan’s wife Mary states that it was her visit to Petersburg, Virginia’s Blandford Cemetery in March 1868 that brought her husband to issue his famous order. She wrote, “(I told my husband that) I had never been so touched as I was by seeing the little flags and the withered flowers that had been laid on these graves (of the Confederate dead).”

Logan replied, “that it was a beautiful revival of the custom of the ancients… and that he… would issue an order for the decoration of the graves of Union soldiers.” (Reminiscences of a Soldier’s Wife, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Southern Illinois University Press, 1997, pp. 242-243)

It seems almost impossible to believe that Logan did not have knowledge of these Confederate Memorial Days before Mary’s visit to Virginia, especially with all of the press coverage they received. In fact, in a speech given on July 4, 1866, in Salem, Illinois, Logan may have been alluding to these events when he complained that “traitors in the South have their gatherings, day after day, to strew garlands of flowers upon the graves of Rebel soldiers, that they may live in their memory as long as life shall last… .” (The Evening Telegraph, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 13, 1866, p. 6, newspapers.com)

Perhaps it was Mary’s remarks, however, that brought Logan to put aside not only his personal feelings but those of many Union veterans that they wanted no part in mirroring this Confederate holiday in the North. Logan faced some criticism for doing so.

Whatever Logan’s reasons for issuing General Order No. 11, the fact that the holiday first began in the south was commonly held into the 20th century. The Carbondale, Illinois Free Press, in a page one story dated May 29, 1931 reported, “It has long been an historical fact the practice of decorating the graves of the Civil War dead had been carried out in the Southern States….” (newspapers.com)

Despite this fact or perhaps because it was forgotten, in 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson declared that Waterloo, New York, had observed the nation’s first Memorial Day on May 5, 1866.

So, while Logan’s establishment of Memorial Day as a national holiday is widely accepted, the question of the holiday’s origin and of why Logan issued it, continues to be debated by historians. In the end, it is the reader who must evaluate the sources and decide which of the many accounts he/she feels is correct.

General Order No. 11

General Order No.11, WASHINGTON, D.C., May 5, 1868

i.   The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or 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.

If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

ii.   It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to lend its friendly aid in bringing to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

iii.   Department commanders will use efforts to make this order effective.

By order of

JOHN A. LOGAN, Commander-in-Chief

N.P. CHIPMAN, Adjutant General

Official: WM. T. COLLINS, A.A.G.

(At many Memorial Day Celebrations folks will read Order Number 11 as part of the ceremony) Download a printable PDF

Scavenger Hunt

California

Colorado

Florida

Georgia

Idaho

Illinois


Iowa


Louisiana


Massachusetts


Michigan