A Memorial Day Reminder

General Order No. 11 was issued on May 5, 1868, by Major General Jonathan Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, in Washington, D.C. It read:

“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 churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or 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 by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foe? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a 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 found 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 free and undivided republic.

“If other eyes grow dull and 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 in us.

“Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; 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 as sacred charges upon the 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 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 call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

“III. Department commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.”

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York the official “birthplace” of Memorial Day. One hundred years before, in 1866, a drugstore owner in Waterloo, New York by the name of Henry Welles, after hearing stories of the war from returning soldiers proposed that all the shops in town close for one day to honor the soldiers killed in the Civil War and who were now buried in Waterloo cemetery. On the morning of May 5, townspeople placed flowers, wreaths, and crosses on the graves. At about the same time, Major General Jonathan A. Logan planned a ceremony for the soldiers who survived the war. He led veterans through town to the cemetery to decorate their comrades' graves with flags. The townspeople called it Decoration Day.

According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that attend today’s observance, about 5,000 people. Then, as now, small American flags were placed on each grave.

By the end of the 19th century, Decoration Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. After World War I, the day was expanded to honor those who had died in all American wars. In 1971, “Memorial Day” was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, and observances were changed to the last Monday in May.

Many Southern states have their own days for honoring the Confederate dead. Mississippi celebrates Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday of April, Alabama on the fourth Monday of April, and Georgia on April 26. North and South Carolina observe it on May 10, Louisiana on June 3, and Tennessee calls that date Confederate Decoration Day. Texas celebrates Confederate Heroes Day January 19 and Virginia calls the last Monday in May Confederate Memorial Day.

In the midst of your backyard barbecue and/or family outing, please take a moment to plant a flag and place some flowers on a soldier’s, sailor’s, marine’s, coast guard’s or national guard’s grave, to remember those that gave their lives – their last full measure of devotion – for you, for us, and for the United States of America.