On June 3, 1861, Warrenton, Virginia, was the location of the first Civil War soldier's grave ever to be decorated, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper article in 1906. This decoration was for the funeral of the first soldier killed in action during the Civil War, John Quincy Marr, who died on June 1, 1861, during a skirmish at Battle of Fairfax Courthouse in Virginia.
In July 1862, women in Savannah, Georgia decorated the graves at Laurel Grove Cemetery of Colonel Francis S. Bartow and his comrades who died at Battle of Manassas (First Battle of Bull Run) the year before.
The 1863 cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania included a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. Some have therefore claimed that President Abraham Lincoln was the founder of Memorial Day. However, Chicago journalist Lloyd Lewis tried to make the case that it was Lincoln's funeral that spurred the soldiers' grave decorating that followed.
On July 4, 1864, ladies decorated soldiers' graves according to local historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Boalsburg promotes itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day. However, no reference to this event existed until the printing of the History of the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1904.
In April 1865, following Lincoln's assassination, commemorations were widespread. The more than 600,000 soldiers of both sides who died in the Civil War meant that burial and memorialization took on new cultural significance. Under the leadership of women during the war, the increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had taken shape. In 1865, the federal government also began creating the United States National Cemetery System for the Union war dead.
According to the United States Library of Congress website, "Southern women decorated the graves of soldiers even before the Civil War’s end. Records show that by 1865, Mississippi, Virginia, and South Carolina all had precedents for Memorial Day." The earliest Southern Memorial Day celebrations were simple, somber occasions for veterans and their families to honor the dead and tend to local cemeteries. In the following years, the Ladies Memorial Association and other groups increasingly focused rituals on preserving Confederate Culture and the Lost Cause of the Confederacy narrative.
On April 26, 1865, in Jackson, Mississippi, Sue Landon Vaughan supposedly decorated the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers. However, the earliest recorded reference to this event did not appear until many years after the fact and is considered a myth. Regardless, mention of the observance is inscribed on a southeast panel of the Confederate Monument in Jackson, erected in 1891.
On May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, recently freed African-Americans held a parade of 10,000 people to honor 257 dead Union soldiers, whose remains they had reburied from a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. Historian David W. Blight cites contemporary news reports of this incident in the Charleston Daily Courier and the New-York Tribune. Although Blight claimed that "African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina", in 2012, he stated that he "has no evidence" that the event in Charleston inspired the establishment of Memorial Day across the country. Accordingly, investigators for Time Magazine, LiveScience, RealClearLife and Snopes have called this conclusion into question.
A year after the war's end, in April 1866, four women of Columbus gathered together to decorate the graves of the Confederate soldiers. They also felt moved to honor the Union soldiers buried there and to note the grief of their families, by decorating their graves as well. The story of their gesture of humanity and reconciliation is held by some writers as the inspiration of the original Memorial Day despite it occurring last among the claimed inspirations.
The northern states quickly adopted the holiday. In 1868, memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states, and 336 in 1869. One author claims that the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. According to a White House address in 2010, the date was chosen as the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom in the North.
In 1868, some Southern public figures began adding the label "Confederate" to their commemorations and claimed that Northerners had appropriated the holiday.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for "Decoration Day" to be observed annually and nationwide; he was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of and for Union Civil War veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois. With his proclamation, Logan adopted the Memorial Day practice that had begun in the Southern states three years earlier.
In 1871, Michigan made "Decoration Day" an official state holiday and by 1890, every northern state had followed suit. There was no standard program for the ceremonies, but they were typically sponsored by the Women's Relief Corps, the women's auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which had 100,000 members. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries, located near major battlefields and thus mainly in the South. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington, D.C
The first official celebration of Confederate Memorial Day as a public holiday occurred in 1874, following a proclamation by the Georgia legislature.
By the 1880s, ceremonies were becoming more consistent across geography as the GAR provided handbooks that presented specific procedures, poems, and Bible verses for local post commanders to utilize in planning the local event. Historian Stuart McConnell reports: On the day itself, the post assembled and marched to the local cemetery to decorate the graves of the fallen, an enterprise meticulously organized months in advance to assure that none were missed. Finally came a simple and subdued graveyard service involving prayers, short patriotic speeches, and music ... and at the end perhaps a rifle salute.
In 1915, following the Second Battle of Ypres, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a physician with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, wrote the poem, "In Flanders Fields". Its opening lines refer to the fields of poppies that grew among the soldiers' graves in Flanders.
By 1916, ten states celebrated it, on June 3, the birthday of CSA President Jefferson Davis. Other states chose late April dates, or May 10, commemorating Davis' capture.
By the 20th century, various Union memorial traditions, celebrated on different days, merged, and Memorial Day eventually extended to honor all Americans who died while in the U.S. military service. Indiana from the 1860s to the 1920s saw numerous debates on how to expand the celebration. It was a favorite lobbying activity of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). An 1884 GAR handbook explained that Memorial Day was "the day of all days in the G.A.R. Calendar" in terms of mobilizing public support for pensions. It advised family members to "exercise great care" in keeping the veterans sober.
On May 26, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson designated an "official" birthplace of the holiday by signing the presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, New York, as the holder of the title. This action followed House Concurrent Resolution 587, in which the 89th Congress had officially recognized that the patriotic tradition of observing Memorial Day had begun one hundred years prior to Waterloo, New York. The village credits druggist Henry C. Welles and county clerk John B. Murray as the founders of the holiday. Scholars have determined that the Waterloo account is a myth. Snopes and Live Science also discredit the Waterloo account.
The name "Memorial Day", which was first attested in 1882, gradually became more common than "Decoration Day" after World War II but was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967.
On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress's change of date within a few years.