From Decoration Day to Memorial Day: An American Tradition for Nearly 150 Years

Memorial Day–the federal holiday in which we honor our veterans and remember those who died while in the armed services–originated in the aftermath of the Civil War. On both sides of that conflict, north and south, families and brothers-in-arms of the fallen came together in grassroots commemorations to lay flowers on the graves of the dead, in honor of their sacrifice. This day of remembrance was initially known as Decoration Day.

The national observance of Decoration Day, in part, is traced to an order by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a fraternal organization of Civil War Union veterans. On May 5, 1868, Logan instructed members of the GAR that:

The 30th Day of May, 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in the defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.

Over the years, the meaning of Decoration Day evolved, gradually expanding from a commemoration of Civil War dead, into a day to honor fallen members of the American armed forces from all wars. In 1888, an American diplomatic delegation to Mexico visited Mexico City National Cemetery on Decoration Day.  The delegation laid flowers at the Soldiers’ monument marking the graves of American troops who died in the Mexican war, in one of the earliest observances at a site that would eventually be maintained by the ABMC. 

As the meaning of Decoration Day evolved, so did the name. By the late 19th century, many Americans were using the term Memorial Day. 

In May 1918, as thousands of American troops were fighting in France during World War I, the U.S. Army held Memorial Day ceremonies in the temporary cemeteries throughout the country. The following year, President Woodrow Wilson gave a Memorial Day address in Suresnes American Cemetery outside of Paris, which in time would become one of eight permanent overseas World War I military cemeteries administered by ABMC.

During World War II, temporary cemeteries were once again established in combat zones, and were the settings of Memorial Day ceremonies.  These observances would continue after the war ended, as the temporary burial grounds were consolidated into the 14 permanent overseas American cemeteries created for the interment of World War II dead.  

For many years, Memorial Day commemorations both domestically and overseas took place on May 30. In 1968 Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This legislation established the observance of Memorial Day on the last Monday in May.

Every year, during Memorial Day weekend, ceremonies in each of the 25 ABMC cemeteries honor the more than 200,000 individuals commemorated in these sites. Each headstone is decorated with a small American flag, and the flag of the corresponding host nation. Speakers and honor guards pay homage to those who fell. These ceremonies, rooted in nearly 150 years of tradition, ensure that the United States will never forget those who died in the armed forces, far from family, home, and the country for which they served.