The History of Memorial Day

President Truman attends the Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery

President Truman attends the Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery

Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, Decoration Day was established as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John Logan originally declared Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. 

It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day, and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.

It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.

The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that attend modern day observances, about 5,000 people. 

Then, as now, small American flags were placed on each grave — a tradition followed at many national cemeteries today. In recent years, the custom has grown in many families to decorate the graves of all departed loved ones.