History of Memorial Day in the United States of America
Following the end of the Civil War, many communities set aside a day to mark the end of the war or as a memorial to those who had died. Some of the places creating an early memorial day include Charleston, South Carolina; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; Carbondale, Illinois; Columbus, Mississippi; many communities in Vermont; and some two dozen other cities and towns. These observances eventually coalesced around Decoration Day, honoring the Union dead, and the several Confederate Memorial Days.
According to Professor David Blight of the Yale University History Department, the first memorial day was observed in 1865 by liberated slaves at the historic race track in Charleston. The site was a former Confederate prison camp as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who had died while captive. The freed slaves reinterred the dead Union soldiers from the mass grave to individual graves, fenced in the graveyard & built an entry arch declaring it a Union graveyard; a very daring thing to do in the South shortly after North's victory. On May 30 1868 the freed slaves returned to the graveyard with flowers they'd picked from the countryside & decorated the individual gravesites, thereby creating the 1st Decoration Day. A parade with thousands of freed blacks and Union soldiers was followed by patriotic singing and a picnic.
The official birthplace of Memorial Day is Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. The village was credited with being the birthplace because it observed the day on May 5, 1866, and each year thereafter, and because it is likely that the friendship of General John Murray, a distinguished citizen of Waterloo, and General John A. Logan, who led the call for the day to be observed each year and helped spread the event nationwide, was a key factor in its growth.
General Logan had been impressed by the way the South honored their dead with a special day and decided the Union needed a similar day. Reportedly, Logan said that it was most fitting; that the ancients, especially the Greeks, had honored their dead, particularly their heroes, by chaplets of laurel and flowers, and that he intended to issue an order designating a day for decorating the grave of every soldier in the land, and if he could he would have made it a holiday.
Logan had been the principal speaker in a citywide memorial observation on April 29, 1866, at a cemetery in Carbondale, Illinois, an event that likely gave him the idea to make it a national holiday. On May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans' organization, Logan issued a proclamation that "Decoration Day" be observed nationwide. It was observed for the first time on May 30 of the same year; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of a battle. The tombs of fallen Union soldiers were decorated in remembrance of this day.
Many of the states of the U.S. South refused to celebrate Decoration Day, due to lingering hostility towards the Union Army and also because there were very few veterans of the Union Army who lived in the South. A notable exception was Columbus, Mississippi, which on April 25, 1866 at its Decoration Day commemorated both the Union and Confederate casualties buried in its cemetery.
The alternative name of "Memorial Day" was first used in 1882, but did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967 . On June 28, 1968, the United States Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved three holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend and for the first time recognized Columbus Day as a federal holiday. The holidays included Washington's Birthday (which evolved into Presidents' Day), Veterans Day, and Memorial Day. 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 at the state level, all fifty states adopted the measure within a few years, although Veterans Day was eventually changed back to its traditional date. Ironically, most corporate businesses no longer close on Columbus Day or Veterans Day, and an increasing number are staying open on President's Day as well. Memorial Day, however, has endured as one holiday during which most businesses stay closed because it marks the beginning of the "summer vacation season." This role is filled in neighboring Canada by Victoria Day, which occurs either on May 24 or the last Monday before that date, placing it exactly one week before Memorial Day.