Memorial Day is an American holiday in which Americans honor the dead and remember those who died while in the armed services. The holiday originated in the aftermath of the American Civil War when a movement formed to honor dead soldiers on both sides of the conflict. This day of remembrance was initially called Decoration Day.
Although Southern women decorated the graves of soldiers before the Civil War, the first observance of this day is claimed to have happened on 3 June 1861, in Warrenton, Virginia. According to a Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper article in 1906, that is when John Quincy Marr’s grave was first decorated. He was a Virginia militia company captain and the first Confederate soldier killed by a Union soldier in combat during the American Civil War.*
In the North there were claims that General John B. Murray was the first to observe Memorial Day. The whole story may be a hoax, just like New York’s Cardiff Giant, but Murray was intensely patriotic and swiftly achieved promotions in the military all the while encouraging many young men to enlist. It was claimed, “In the winter of 1867-8, when in the South, he noticed the touching rite of the decoration of soldiers’ graves by the ladies, and, deeply impressed with the beauty and solemnity of this custom, he instituted a similar one at his home when he returned.”
No matter if Murray was involved or not, the holiday became increasingly popular in both the north and the south. In 1868, the same year that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) returned to San Francisco to negotiate with the Alta California for the rights to use his newspaper correspondence for The Innocents Abroad, was the same year that a proclamation was issued calling for “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide. Northern states quickly adopted the holiday and that same year memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states, and by 1869 there were 336 celebrations nationwide.
The name “Memorial Day” first surfaced in 1882. Decoration Day then gradually faded so that after World War II Memorial Day was the more common name for the holiday. However, it was not officially declared Memorial Day until 1967. A year or so later Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, to a specified Monday thereby creating a three-day weekend.
Over the time that memorial celebrations were being formed, one year that had numerous Memorial Day observances was in 1885. Newspapers reported on all the activities held in various states to honor the dead. Washington D.C.’s National Tribune was among the papers reporting on the states that celebrated the day and the activities that took place. Here is a summary:
COLORADO ― In Loveland, at the A.E. Burnside Post, no 15, celebrated Memorial Day with “due solemnity.” The Sunday preceding the holiday Union services were held in the Opera house and included ministers of the United Brethren, Methodist, and Christian churches. On Memorial Day a procession was formed that included the Loveland Cornet Band, the Masonic Fraternity, the Odd Fellows, and Post. The procession was led by J.C. Foster and followed by citizens in carriages and on horseback. A one-mile procession traveled to the cemetery where six veterans of the post were buried and where their graves were “beautifully decorated.”
ILLINOIS – “Decoration Day was observed with much ceremony in Chicago. Flowers were strewn on the graves of the Union soldiers at Oak Woods, after which the veterans marched to the center of the section in which 4,200 Confederate prisoners, who died at Fort Douglas were buried, and deposited a large wreath of flowers. The ladies of the Relief Corps took a prominent part in the ceremonies. General Herman Lied delivered the oration. At Rose Hill Cemetery, where 763 Union soldiers rest, the services were conducted under the auspices of Custer Post. ― Samuel H. Wilcox, Greenup: Post No. 257 decorated the soldier’s graves on Memorial Day … The exercises were of a most interesting nature ― … J.C. Smith Post. No. 239, met in their hall early … and marched to the cemetery, where the usual services were held.”
INDIANA ― In South Bend, the usual Memorial Day services and observances happened. For instance, the A.O. Bachman Post, No. 25 observed Memorial Day with an address delivered by Colonel C.E. Whitsit and Mr. R.E. Hawley of Washington, Indiana, gave the oration. The G.C.C. Laurel Post decorated about 45 graves and an address was delivered while members of the Robert Weiron Post, No. 300, turned out to celebrate the day.
KANSAS ― The Gen. Bailey Post, No. 49, participated in decorating the graves of their fallen comrades and then listened to Reverend Preston Kinney deliver an address. Other celebrations also happened with the Fredonia Phil Harvey Post and Relief Corps celebrating with emblem waving and band playing. They also marched over a mile to the cemetery were floral tributes were laid on graves. Twelve headstones were also placed on graves and afterwards, an address by Professor Glenn was given followed by a music from a local choir.
MAINE ― In Lincoln, “Memorial Day was properly observed by Joe Hooker Post, No. 86, of Enfield and much interest was manifested by the comrades and citizens,” and in Houlton “Decoration Day was observed in the usual manner. There was a very large turnout.”
MASSACHUSETTS ― The Needham Post, No. 39, of Lawrence traveled to North Andover to participate in the Memorial Day exercises being held there. “Prayer was offered … the oration as by Col. John Sweeney and the exercises closed with a benediction. In Winchendon, Post No. 153 held memorial services in the Methodist Church with the orator being Dr. F.W. Russell. … [The] Wilcox Post, of Springfield, previous to Decoration Day issued a circular protesting against such desecration as football, horse-racing, etc., on Memorial Day. On the 30th, under the auspices of the Post, the graves of the soldier dead were appropriately decorated.” In Worcester, Memorial Day was observed under the auspices of Post 10 led by Commander William L. Robinson.
The Department of Massachusetts also reported to the National Tribune the following:
“This is our day of all days in the years, sweet, sad Memorial Day. I have just returned from attending the services of decoration at the cemetery with my Post and Corps. We have in this cemetery (Woodlawn, in the town of Everett) the grave of Mrs. Helen F. Gilson, and today our Corps (John A. Hawes, No. 3) place thereon, as a tribute to that noble woman and other army heroes, a floral design of red, with the figure 3 in blue; the crescent and mound white, with the words ‘Woman’s’ on crescent, ‘Relief Corps on mound, in blue letters, with a border of red on the edge of mound. A card bearing this inscription was attached: ‘In grateful memory of the noble self-sacrificing services of Mrs. Helen F. Gilson and all other patriotic and loyal women who served as army nurses during the late rebellion, this tribute of love is tendered.’ … One of our youngest members also placed a shield made of wild flowers, which was very lovely. While the Corps would have done this without the General Order, yet they expressed great respect for the recommendations of our National President, whom they all hold in high estimation.”
MICHIGAN ― In Galesburg Post No. 295, “after the Memorial services on the Sunday preceding Decoration Day, was presented by the ladies with a beautiful silk flag, four feet by six feet. … At Saginaw the observance of Decoration Day was greatly interfered with by rain. … [In] Plainville [the] Thompson Post, No. 261, observed Decoration Day in the usual manner. The ceremony of the Presbyterian Church was conducted by N.G. Kellogg. The address was delivered by Comrade O. Thompson, and was one of the finest that has ever been heard in this section of the country. … [In Clio four] cemeteries [were visited] … and 26 graves [decorated].”
MISSOURI ― Solemn and impressive ceremonies were held in Sedalia that included an “eloquent address” and a recitation of an “original poem.”
MINNESOTA ― In Worthington celebrations were held by Post No. 34 assisted by the Relief Corps and Sons of Veterans.
NEW JERSEY ― In Old Bridge the day was observed by Post No. 79 in conjunction with the Women’s Relief Corps, a charitable organization originally founded as the official women’s auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in 1883. “The floral offerings were very handsome and did great credit to the ladies who constructed them. Mr. John Handly, of New Brunswick, delivered a very interesting oration in the Methodist church.”
NEBRASKA ― Chandler Post, No. 68, in Aurora observed Memorial Day with the commander of the post delivering an oration. The National Tribune also reported:
“The Posts at Marquette, Phillips, and Seatonville came in with brass bands and martial music. The address of the General was characteristic of the man ― the severities and necessities of the war justified and ameliorated by the condition of humanity and the presence of Christian religion. After the orations, soldiers from the East and from the West … rushed up to grasp the only hand that rebel lead has spared. Nor was it the hand of man alone that greeted the gallant chieftain. Many a widow, with tears coursing down her cheeks, grasped the hand of him under whose banner her husband fell. God bless the old hero, and may the Government he served so well remember him and his through all this earthly pilgrimage.”
NEW YORK ― In Rome Colonel William H. Bright delivered the Memorial Day address and in Springfield Post No. 87 marched to the Baptist Church where a program was given that included an address by Reverend E.B. Williams. In Gainesville, the W.B. Lawrence Post, No. 31 was headed by the Cornet Band and marched three miles to North Gainesville cemetery. There soldier graves were decorated. In Silver Springs a similar ceremony happened with an address delivered in the Congregational church and in Postdam, the Marsh Post No. 214, turned out in full force with an oration given by Senator Commodore Perry Vedder. In Plattsburg, where 236 soldiers were laid to rest, it was reported that “our fallen comrades of the late war sleep side by side with the soldiers and sailors, both American and British, who perished on the occasion of McDonough’s famous victory of September 11, 1814.** The grave of all were alike profusely decorated with beautiful flowers.” The Plattsburgh Band formed an escort with Walter H. Benedict Post, the entire fire department, and many citizens, and despite rain, joined in the procession and listened to an oration given by a townsman named Chas. H. Moore esq. Flags were also displayed at half-mast and most businesses were closed.
OHIO ― In Dayton observances of Decoration Day happened in the usual manner. Orations were also given there as well as in Swanton and Tillin. In Cardington services were held on Saturday and were attended by a “throng of people.” Reverend G.A. Peters gave an oration that was reported to have so pleased “soldier boys” that “they threatened to send him to the Legislature.” Recitations were also given, and a flag was present to the James St. John Post. Bloom Post, No. 269 observed Memorial Day for the first time with an address, and Post No. 391 turned out in full force to decorate graves of their “fallen comrades.”
PENNSYLVANIA ― Col. Lytle Post, No. 240 traveled to Springfield and decorated graves of fallen soldiers. “On Memorial Day the soldiers’ and sailors’ monument was dedicated at Carbondale. The ceremonies were under the auspices of William H. Davis Post, No. 187, … assisted by J. G. Stephens Post, of Peckville. Mayor Kelly … formally invited the Post to dedicate the new monument.” A dedication prayer was also given, and several original poems presented.
RHODE ISLAND ― In Newport an oration by George A. Littlefield was given and in Providence the commander arranged for a Memorial service at the Church of the Mediator where about 500 citizens attended. In the evening 65 veterans of Slocum Post visited Pawtucket and attended services at the Music Hall after having been given an invitation by the Tower Post, No. 17.
TENNESSEE ― In Nashville, despite the threat of rain, a large crowd of between 800 and 900 assembled at the National Cemetery. There they paid tribute to the dead heroes laid to rest. “Many flowers … were brought there and the earnestness with which they were placed on the graves gave assurance that the hearts of the comrades were in the duty they were performing. The ceremonies were very solemn and impressive.” The orator of the day was Hon. A. O. Wilson. He delivered an address during the course of which he remarked:
“Here rest 16,526 Union heroes, and they are a sacred heritage from all the many battlefields of Tennessee. In the State are buried 57,000 Union heroes, and by their side in Tennessee sleep thousands on the other side. Both sides remember the people and the page of American history … But we come to-day to pay our tribute to one side, and to the other side we owe our respect for courage. To one side we owe a country saved, institutions saved; we owe the preservation of a Government of the people, by the people, for the people, and therefore, while we render respect to those who fought against us bravely, we will render to those who died for their country this duty, for it is a debt that we cannot pay.”
VERMONT ― Services given for Memorial Day were described as “successful” in every way.
WISCONSIN ― The T.J. Hungerford Post, No. 39, observed Memorial Day as usual with many citizens marching to the cemetery bearing flowers. They then honored by dead by laying the flowers upon the graves of the departed brave soldiers.
*According to Wikipedia, “Lieutenant Charles Henry Tompkins of the 2d U.S. Cavalry Regiment led the Union force of between 50 and 86 men who separated into two groups … Captain Marr challenged the riders, asking “What cavalry is that?” These were his last words. Scattered shots were fired as the Union cavalry rode through and Captain Marr fell dead … and not in the immediate presence of any of his men … no one knew where he was or what may have happened to him. His body was found later in the morning.”
** This was the Battle of Plattsburgh, also known as the Battle of Lake Champlain, and it ended the final British invasion of the northern states during the War of 1812. The British ship HMS Confiance was commanded by George Downie. He encountered Thomas Macdonough’s fleet waiting in the Plattsburgh harbor and immediately attacked, achieving the upper hand early in the battle. As the battle continued the British squadron incurred considerable damage from close-range cannon fire. In the process an American cannon shot blasted a British cannon off its mount, crushing and killing Downie. Through use of anchor and cable tactics Mcdonough was able to swing his ship, the USS Saratoga, around the undamaged side of the British flagship, gaining firepower superiority over the British fleet. The Confiance with its inexperienced crew attempted the same tactic, but Macdonough seized the opportunity and fired a broadside, severely damaging it and forcing its surrender, which thereby removed the British flagship from action. American forces then captured or destroyed the remaining larger ships in the British fleet.
-  The Boston Globe, “Memorial Day in Boston,” May 31, 1885, p. 3.
-  The National Tribune, “Department News,” June 11, 1885, p. 6.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  The National Tribune, “Relief Corps News,” June 11, 1885, p. 6.
- The National Tribune, “Dept. News,” p. 6.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.