Top of page

From Decoration Day to Memorial Day

Share this post:

The following is a guest post by Jan Grenci, Reference Specialist, Prints and Photographs Division

Memorial Day is now observed on the last Monday in May to honor all those who have died in service while defending the United States. But the name, meaning and timing of this special day have changed over the years. Images reflect both the changes and the continuities.

The precise origins of Decoration Day, as it was first known, are hard to pin down. A number of cities and towns claim to be the birthplace of the holiday. One fact not in dispute is that in 1868 General John A. Logan, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that Decoration Day be observed on May 30th. Civil War soldiers’ graves were to be decorated with flowers on this day.

In this early poster from the Prints and Photographs Division, from the 1890’s, artist Charles Cox pairs cyclists competing in a Decoration Day race with marching soldiers and veterans.

Bearing's Decoration Day Cycle Races. Poster by Charles A. Cox, 1890s.
Bearing’s Decoration Day Cycle Races. Poster by Charles A. Cox, 1890s.

Over time, the holiday changed. By the late 19th century, the day was more commonly referred to as Memorial Day. As the United States became involved in World War I, the day evolved to honor the dead of all American wars.

This poster from 1917 shows the name change and honors the memory of the dead from the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War.

Honor the brave Memorial Day, May 30, 1917. Poster, 1917.
Honor the Brave Memorial Day, May 30, 1917. Poster, 1917.

Memorial Day observations have come to include parades, speeches, and services at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

President Coolidge pays homage to Unknown Soldier... Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1927 May 30.
President Coolidge pays homage to Unknown Soldier… Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1927 May 30.

But the long-standing tradition of decorating the graves of the fallen with flowers and flags continues to this day.

Arlington Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia... Photo by Esther Bubley, 1943 May.
Arlington Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia… Photo by Esther Bubley, 1943 May.
Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006.
Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006.

Learn More:

Comments (7)

  1. I see all of this historical information. I know my family’s customs when I was a child growing up in rural Missouri.
    My family in the 1940’s and 50’s decorated as many ancestor’s graves as they could. I heard nothing about Army, Military. They were uncles, mostly. Uncles who had not married. Then grandparents. Women as well as men.
    Custom is also history! Mom and Dad made special efforts and trips to do this for people they appreciated.

  2. Judy Cusick Dyke’s comments are well taken. My wife and I published a book entitled DECORATION DAY IN THE MOUNTAINS (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2010) to help answer it. The folk custom of Decoration Day did not begin during the Civil War, we believe — it is considerably older, and it is still practiced today. It is not about the fallen in battle; it is about honoring your kin and ancestors by cleaning and decorating the cemetery where they are buried, then holding a sacred ritual with preaching, gospel singing, and dinner on the ground on the Sunday on which that Decoration Day falls.

    Shortly after the end of the Civil War, General John Logan’s wife, Mary Logan, saw a richly decorated cemetery in Petersburg, VA, with tiny flags for the fallen Confederate soldiers buried there. When she described it to him, since he was general of the Grand Army of the Republic (the Union veterans), he issued a general order for all the Union veterans to go out on May 30th and decorate the graves of their fellow soldiers fallen in battle. The new practice may have subsumed older Decoration Day practices in the North — there was a lot of new grieving to do. But from the start in the North it was called both Decoration Day and Memorial Day. The South reacted by instituting state by state Confederate Memorial Days. Meanwhile the old folk custom continued uninterrupted and is still practiced. Occasionally in border areas like Missouri the two customs are conflated. But a diagnostic difference is that the old Upland South folk custom is on different Sundays for different cemeteries — very anti-establishment Protestant — whereas the new Northern custom (now called Memorial Day) was on the same day for everyone.

    Best to all from a former Library of Congress employee,
    Alan Jabbour

  3. Very well done…very educational

  4. This is very lacking in its historical representation. Decoration Day was started in the South and not in the North or by US Military. There are disputes over which town first started Decoration Day. Originally different days were celebrated at various towns and in various states in the South. Decoration Day was celebrated to honor Confederate dead and later the North began followed suit with Memorial Day. Eventually the days, names, and dates were merged into Memorial Day. On Decoration Day memorial wreaths were placed on the graves of the Confederate dead.

  5. The first known celebration of Decoration Day, was in 1865, less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered…

    In the late stages of the Civil War, the Confederate army transformed the formerly posh Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into a makeshift prison for Union captives.

    More than 260 Union soldiers died from disease and exposure while being held in the race track’s open-air infield. Their bodies were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstands.

    When Charleston fell and Confederate troops evacuated the badly damaged city, freed slaves remained. One of the first things those emancipated men and women did was to give the fallen Union prisoners a proper burial. They exhumed the mass grave and reinterred the bodies in a new cemetery with a tall whitewashed fence inscribed with the words: “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

    And then on May 1, 1865, something even more extraordinary happened. According to two reports that Blight found in The New York Tribune and The Charleston Courier, a crowd of 10,000 people, mostly freed slaves with some white missionaries, staged a parade around the race track. Three thousand black schoolchildren carried bouquets of flowers and sang “John Brown’s Body.” Members of the famed 54th Massachusetts and other black Union regiments were in attendance and performed double-time marches. Black ministers recited verses from the Bible.

    If the news reports are accurate, the 1865 gathering at the Charleston race track would be the earliest Memorial Day commemoration on record. Blight excitedly called the Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, looking for more information on the historic event.

    From David Bight’s research for his book Race and Reunion, published in 2001

  6. From the time I was a little girl, my grandmother taught me to make floral tributes for what she called Decoration Day. It has turned into a business for me. As long as I can, I will honor my ancestors memory on this day, both civilian and military!

  7. Judy Dyke’s comments sound so familiar. During the 1950s my maternal family did just as she described. I too was a child and the day began with Uncle Al and Uncle Charlie as the color guard leading the parade. Post 68 in Pittsfield, Mass. is named in charter member Uncle Charlie’s honor. Uncle Al was the first “colored” volunteer in Berkshire County for WW 1. It was a big deal for this Black family whose service goes back to and included the American Revolutionary War.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.