Why Memorial Day Used to be Controversial

by Tamera Lynn Kraft


After the Civil War ended in April, 1865, the loved one in both the North and the South wanted a way to honor their loved ones who had died in the conflict. In the spring of 1866, the families of the dead in Waterloo, New York organized the first Decoration Day. After that, local springtime tributes to the fallen of the Civil War sprang up in various places.

In Columbus, Mississippi on April 25, 1866, a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. But they noticed the graves of the Union soldiers were neglected. This bothered them, so they placed some of their flowers on those graves, as well.

In 1968, A Civil War Union veteran organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) formed a committee to discuss officially having a day of remembrance. Major General John A. Logan, commander of the GAR, declared Decoration Day should be observed on May 30th and established Decoration Day to be a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. May 30th was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

He ordered for his posts to decorate graves “with the choicest flowers of springtime… We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery which had been established two years earlier. 5,000 people showed up for the ceremonies that centered around the Arlington mansion which was once the home of General Robert E. Lee. General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant presided over the ceremonies, and many well known politicians attended and made speeches. After all the speeches were over, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR paraded through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers, and singing hymns.

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

Controversy in the South

Many Southern states weren’t happy about the Union deciding a day to honor the dead. They felt the holiday was exclusively for the Union dead and boycotted it. They formed their own days for honoring the Confederate dead.

Many of these states still have their own Decoration Day. Mississippi celebrates Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday of April. Alabama honors their Confederate dead on the fourth Monday of April. Georgia celebrates on April 26th. North and South Carolina observe it on May 10th, Louisiana on June 3rd, and Tennessee calls that date Confederate Decoration Day. Texas celebrates Confederate Heroes Day January 19th, and Virginia calls the last Monday in May Confederate Memorial Day.

Although they have their own Confederate Memorial Day, most Southern States now honor the fallen dead in other US wars on the national Memorial Day.

How It Become and What it is Today

While Decoration Day was originally organized to honor those who died in the Civil War, After World War I, it expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, the name was changed to Memorial Day, and the last Monday in May was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress It was then also placed on the last Monday in May.

Every year, on Memorial Day, small American flags are placed on each grave at Arlington Memorial Cemetery, as they are on soldier’s graves throughout our nation. But many families don’t just honor the lives of dead soldiers. They also decorate the graves of all deceased loved ones.

To ensure the sacrifices of America ’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.

The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. As Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada states: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”

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