Decoration Day, forerunner of Memorial Day

Memorial Day is the day the US remember the men and women who died while serving in the forces. It takes place every year on the last Monday of May. Originally, it was known as Decoration Day and began around the end of the American Civil War.

Memorial DayThe practice of bringing flowers to the graves of departed loved ones had been around for centuries, having evolved out of the practices of various cultures around the world who bring food and other items to gravesites.  But placing flowers on the graves of soldiers began when two Southern ladies were visiting and cleaning the graves of their loved ones. Even people with servants didn’t send them out to maintain the graves of loved ones.  It had to be done by family.  Tombs in New Orleans, before the war, were always whitewashed by family members.  Even the wealthiest and highest ranking members of New Orleans society rolled up their sleeves and cared for their dearly departed themselves.

Union Soldiers

As these ladies were placing flowers upon the graves of Confederate Civil War soldiers, they noticed that the graves of Union soldiers buried nearby were barren.  It was not uncommon for the dead from a Civil War battlefield to be buried in the same area, even though the areas for one side of that conflict were segregated from the other.  The ladies realized that the families of the young men under those headstones were too far from their families to be sent home for burial, much less for family to visit and care for their graves.  Many might not even know where their son, husband, father, nephew or cousin was buried.

This touched the hearts of the women who thought of how they would feel if it were their family who were buried so far away with no one to tend his grave and lay flowers in remembrance.  And hence Decoration Day began.  The ladies took it upon themselves to clean the graves of all the Civil War dead in the cemetery and to bring flowers.  The practice spread, and eventually expanded to include all those who have died in the service of our country.

Red Poppies

In May 1868, Memorial Day was declared an official day to honor all those who died in service to their country and as a means of healing the still-fresh wounds of the American Civil War.  In 1915, during the First World War, the poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae inspired a woman from Georgia named Moina Michael to begin wearing red poppies in tribute to dead service men and women from the United States.  The practice has since spread all over the world, becoming a symbol of respect and recognition to all those who serve their countries, as well as a means of raising funds not only for members of the military, but for their widows and children as well.

No one knows when Decoration Day became Memorial Day, it was a gradual process, just as no one knows for certain exactly how or where it began.  The important thing, as US President Lyndon Johnson pointed out in 1966, is the spirit of remembrance and reconciliation the holiday promotes.

Traditionally, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30 but from 1971, it changed to the last Monday in May.

The American Civil War nearly tore the United States apart before it was even a real nation.  But it taught an invaluable lesson about the importance of those who stand up to fight for what they believe is right.  In the wake of the tragedy of the Civil War, a holiday was born that has spread across the world, unifying us all with an awareness of the importance of those who wear the uniforms of the military.

Kat Smutz


Kat is the author of American Civil War: History In An Hour, American Slavery: History In An Hour, and Lincoln: History In An Hour.

See also article on the Gettysburg Address.