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Decoration Day

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

Before it was "Memorial Day" it was known as "Decoration Day."

The years following the end of the Civil War in 1865 saw American communities tending to the remains and graves of an unprecedented number of war dead. All of the previous wars and conflicts fought by the United States combined would still not add up to the body count produced by the Civil War.

On the first official Decoration Day, 30 May 1868, Ohio Representative James A. Garfield, a former Union general and future U.S. president, addressed a crowd of 5,000 who had gathered at Arlington National Cemetery:

"Hither our children's children shall come to pay their tribute of grateful homage. For this are we met to-day. By the happy suggestion of a great society, assemblies like this are gathering at this hour in every State in the Union.

Thousands of soldiers are to-day turning aside in the march of life to visit the silent encampments of dead comrades who once fought by their side. From many thousand homes, whose light was put out when a soldier fell, there go forth to-day to join these solemn processions loving kindred and friends, from whose heart the shadow of grief will never be lifted till the light of the eternal world dawns upon them."

After Garfield spoke, the visitors made their way into the cemetery to visit the tens of thousands of graves in the newly formed cemetery.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Reading Times from 31 May 1880, titled "Lesson of Decoration Day":

"Fifteen years have passed since the war ended, and it is therefore the more creditable to the patriotism of our people that the beautiful ceremony of decorating soldiers' graves is now observed with even more solemnity and increasing interest than when it was first orginiated. This attestation of enduring affection for those who sacrificed their lives in the service of their country is conducive to the inculcation of lessons of patriotism and loyalty in the rising generation as well as to reawaken sentiments of the deepest gratitude for the blessings we now enjoy through the death of the soldiers who were laid under the sod by their surviving comrades in the field or by their weeping friends at home. May the memory of their deeds be long remembered and the observance of Decoration Day be never forgotten!"

From the 31 May 1887 edition of the Reading Times:

"The Decoration day ceremonies in Reading yesterday were the most imposing that have taken place in this city. The parade was quite a pageant, while it is estimated that not less than 25,000 people visited the cemetery during the day. There has never heretofore been such a display of garlands and flowers in that beautiful resting place of the dead. Not a single soldier's grave was neglected yesterday. Everywhere there were hands to lay a flower on such mounds, to hand garlands on such tombs and loving hearts to do homage to their glorious deeds....a public sentiment of veneration for the dead, and hallowed respect for the deeds and sacrifices which the day commemorates that, it is to be hoped, will increase in fervency as time rolls on, because it will tend to educate future generations in devotion until death, to liberty, equality and union."

At first, Decoration Day was not an official holiday. May 30 was a day touted by the Grand Army of the Republic, an association of Union Civil War veterans, as an official day of remembrance for people across the country. The idea was to honor the war's dead by decorating the graves of Union soldiers.

Local municipalities and states adopted resolutions over the following years to make Decoration Day an official holiday in their areas. Each of the northern states had adopted a Decoration Day by 1890.

As time went on, "Memorial Day" began to replace "Decoration Day" as the name of the holiday. Soon it became a day to honor all fallen American troops, not just those from the Civil War. After two World Wars, Memorial Day was the term in more common usage, and the act of remembering all of the fallen took on a renewed importance.

For the 2021 Memorial Day post, click here.


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