The History Of Memorial Day

History of Memorial Day, antique archaeology, mike wolfe american pickers
Children wave flags during a Memorial Day parade in Ashland, Maine, in 1943. Photo: John Collier / Library of Congress.

We all have moments when we need to be reminded that our holidays aren’t just about time off to spend with family. Today’s traditions on Memorial Day involve baseball, cookouts and time spent with friends and neighbors, but how much do you know about where the holiday came from?

How Memorial Day Began

While there is a lot of discussion regarding when and where the holiday began, two things are clear: that Memorial Day started during the Civil War and was made official on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, and that it was originally known as Decoration Day. The name originated due to the fact that Decoration Day was a time for decorating the graves of soldiers whose lives were lost in combat.

General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery on the first official Decoration Day, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. During World War I, the holiday extended from honoring the fallen of the Civil War to the remembrance of fallen soldiers of all US wars and became known as Memorial Day.

Daisies Gathered for Decoration Day, May 1899. Credit: Library of Congress.
Daisies Gathered for Decoration Day, May 1899. Credit: Library of Congress.

An Old Tradition of Memorial Day

For many years, one of the biggest traditions of Memorial Day was the wearing of Red Poppies. Wearing red poppies on the holiday began in the early 1900s and has been commemorated in US stamps, poems, and artwork over the years.

See More Vintage Photos of Decoration Days Past

Photos Courtesy of The Library of Congress and New York Daily News Archive. See more vintage images of Memorial Day at The Daily Beast here. 

Tomas Gregson, 10, and William Rush, 8, both Boy Scouts of Brooklyn, decorate graves in the Cypress Hills National Cemetery. According to this photo's original caption, more than 500 Boy Scouts and their leaders particpated in the annual ceremony of decorating 19,000 graves.
Tomas Gregson, 10, and William Rush, 8, both Boy Scouts of Brooklyn, decorate graves in the Cypress Hills National Cemetery. According to this photo’s original caption, more than 500 Boy Scouts and their leaders particpated in the annual ceremony of decorating 19,000 graves. Ed Clarity, New York Daily News Archive / Getty

Learn more about the history and observance of Memorial Day here.

7 Comments

7 thoughts on “MEMORIAL DAY: THEN & NOW”

  1. Joyce Morrell

    I grew up believing Decoration Day was for remembering all our family members who had passed on, not just the military.

    1. Janell Darlene Post Author

      I grew up wearing the “buddy poppies” as a girl. I think that’s what they called them. It was a fundraising effort for a Veterans organization around Memorial Day every year. I was just thinking that it seems like I don’t see them anymore either.

    2. Ron Laisle

      Don’t get out much? I’m a disabled veteran who lives in a state run veterans home in the Midwest. There are a number of veterans here (20? 30? >?) who turn out literally thousands of poppies for sale around Memorial day. There are a huge number of vets across the country who look forward to this as a little way to continue to serve. They are distributed by service groups like the VFW.

  2. Dale Sharp

    I recently read an article that stated that freed slaves dug up a mass grave of Union Soldiers and gave them all a proper burial. After that thousands gathered in a parade to recognize and celebrate what the Union done for them. Whether accurate or not, I like the story. Supposedly, the picture that accompanied the article is from archives in the National Library. Either way, we can never forget what all of our soldiers from the beginning of our country have given.

  3. Nancy Mattox

    The.poppies are made by the American Legion. They aren’t easy to find, but in Indiana, you can find ladies selling them at the grocery stores. They are a constant reminder of Memorial Day and what it stands for.

  4. Ron Laisle

    Guys, might I suggest searching Google for “Flanders Field”. There is a very moving poem and a brief history of the red poopy and it’s significance to Memorial day. Have a hankie handy.

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