Back Story: First Memorial Day celebrated 145 years ago

"We cherish too, the Poppy red / That grows on fields where valor led, / It seems to signal to the skies / That blood of heroes never dies."

"We Shall Keep the Faith" by Moina Michael


For many Marylanders, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer. It is a day marked with trips to the beach, backyard cookouts, baseball games, community pool openings and, for the next 90 days or so, paying attention to Friday afternoon traffic reports detailing the backup at the Bay Bridge.

For others, it takes on a more somber meaning as they pause to remember the men and women who have given their lives in the service of their country.


This year marks the 145th anniversary of Memorial Day, which was first proclaimed on May 5, 1868, by Gen. John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans group. His proclamation, General Order No. 11, established that May 30 would be set aside each year for decorating the graves of Americans who died in the defense of the nation.

The first observation of what was then called Decoration Day took place on May 30, 1868, when the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers were decorated with flowers at Arlington National Cemetery.

The practice of decorating graves of soldiers first took place in 1863, as the Civil War raged, when Sue Landon Vaughn, a descendant of President John Adams, gathered a group of women to place flowers on the graves of soldiers buried in the Vicksburg, Miss., cemetery.

At the first Memorial Day observation in 1868, "The ceremony of decorating the graves of the Federal soldiers who fell during the late unfortunate civil war took place in various sections of the country," The Baltimore Sun reported.

"The dispatches from the North and South which have been received show that the testimony to the dead was carried out in an impressive manner. Flowers were strewn in profusion, and every token of respect and affection shown to the dead by relatives and friends," observed the newspaper. "The impressive ceremonies were particularly carried out in Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and other cities."

The speaker at Arlington National Cemetery was Civil War Gen. James A. Garfield, reported The Sun, who was then serving in the House of Representatives and would become the nation's 20th president.

It wasn't until 1869, The Sun reported, that the city's African-American community honored their dead on Memorial Day.

"The memorial services, inaugurated last year by the colored people for the purpose of doing honor to the soldier dead of their race buried at the Laurel Cemetery, on the Belair Road, were repeated yesterday, and although the demonstration was not as large as the year past, the turnout was a very creditable one," reported The Sun in 1870.

A procession including the Sons of Gideon, Lincoln Rangers and the Hannibal Club formed in downtown Baltimore and marched to the cemetery under the banner held aloft by Capt. William H. Butler that proclaimed, "Give us equal rights and we will protect ourselves."

Once at the cemetery, they gathered at the graves of some 250 soldiers and commenced singing, "Before Jehovah's Awful Throne Ye Nations Bow With Sacred Joy," which was followed by a prayer intoned by Bishop Alexander Wayman of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, reported the newspaper.

A. Ward Handy, who was the orator that afternoon, reminded the crowd that "the dead heroes that they mourned to-day were humbly instrumental in emancipating their people from two evils, prejudice and oppression."

He added: "Maidens and matrons, sires and sons mourn for their honored dead. Widows and orphans have been buried in the moldering bosom of earth noble forms that shall never greet them again till the angel of the resurrection shall summon them to roll call, and they shall answer to their names in the great camp of eternity."


Memorial Day traditions include flying the flag at half-staff in honor of the nation's dead until noon.

New York was the first state to make Memorial Day a legal holiday in 1873, soon followed by other states and cities. By 1890, Memorial Day was a legal holiday in all of the Northern states.

The South refused to recognize May 30 as Memorial Day until after World War I, when it was changed to honor not only the Civil War dead but the dead from all of the country's wars. The first Confederate Memorial Day was celebrated on April 26, 1866.

In 1971, Memorial Day became a federal holiday and was moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May.

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