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Memorial Day…How It Started

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The unofficial start of summer is a day off work complete with barbecues, jammed highways, summer blockbuster movies and holiday sales. How many of us know how it started?

Memorial Day has it’s roots in the War Between The States. Over 620, 000 Americans, both blue and gray,  died between 1861 and 1865. The loss of life and its effect on communities throughout the North and South led to spontaneous comemorations of the dead:

  • In 1864, women from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, put flowers on the graves of their dead from the just-fought Battle of Gettysburg. The next year, a group of women decorated the graves of soldiers buried in a Vicksburg, Mississippi, cemetery.
  • In April 1866, women from Columbus, Mississippi, laid flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. It was recognized at the time as an act of healing regional wounds. In the same month, up in Carbondale, Illinois, 219 Civil War veterans marched through town in memory of the fallen to Woodlawn Cemetery, where Union hero Maj. Gen. John A. Logan delivered the principal address. The ceremony gave Carbondale its claim to the first organized, community-wide Memorial Day observance.
  • Waterloo, New York., began holding an annual community service on May 5, 1866. Although many towns claimed the title, it was Waterloo that won congressional recognition as the “birthplace of Memorial Day.”

It was first known as Decoration Day: From the practice of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths and flags, the holiday was long known as Decoration Day. The name Memorial Day goes back to 1882, but the older name didn’t disappear until after World War II. Federal law declared “Memorial Day” the official name in 1967.

The 1st official Civil War Vet’s association on the northern side, the Grand Army of the Republic, was instrumental in getting what is now Memorial Day into the national spotlight. On a personal note, I belong to the official descendant of the GAR, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. My membership is derived from one of my great great grandfathers, Charles Williams. He was a Corporal in the 46th Wisconsin Infantry in 1865.

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