1991 29¢ Flags on Parade
US #2531 was issued for the 125th anniversary of the 1866 Memorial Day celebration in Waterloo, New York.

On May 30, 1868, the first Memorial Day, then called Decoration Day, was held in the United States.  It’s grown to become a federal holiday dedicated to remembering the sacrifices of our fallen soldiers.

While this event is often considered the major predecessor to Memorial Day, there were several other similar celebrations that came before it.  The practice of decorating soldiers’ graves has been done for centuries.  With more than 600,000 casualties during the Civil War, honoring fallen soldiers took on a new significance in America.

 1949 3¢ Grand Army of the Republic
US #985 was issued to commemorate the last gathering of the Grand Army of the Republic.

According to one account, the first instance of a Civil War soldier’s grave being decorated occurred in Warrenton, Virginia, on June 3, 1861.  During the war there were other recorded instances of people decorating the graves of soldiers.  Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, has declared itself the birthplace of Memorial Day for the decoration of soldiers’ graves that took place on July 4, 1864.

1922 50¢ Arlington Amphitheatre
US #570 – Since 1948, Old Guard service members have placed flags at each headstone in Arlington Cemetery for Memorial Day.

There is another claim that the first observance could be traced back to African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865.  There were also Memorial Day celebrations in the South since 1866.  On April 25, 1866, the ladies of Columbus, Mississippi laid flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers.

1973 8¢ Lyndon B. Johnson
US #1503 was issued on Johnson’s 65th birthday.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, New York, as the official birthplace of Memorial Day.  Their first Memorial Day celebration was held on May 5, 1866, and quickly became an annual community-wide event in which business closed and people decorated the graves of soldiers.

All of these smaller events around the country served as inspiration for the first wide-scale Memorial Day in 1868.  On May 5 of that year, John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War veterans’ organization, issued a proclamation that May 30 would be Decoration Day, to honor those who died “in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”  He chose the day because it wasn’t the anniversary of any battle and according to some sources, because that was the best day for flowers to be in bloom.

1882 5¢ Garfield
US #205 was issued five months after Garfield’s assassination.

On May 30, 1868, there were memorial events in 183 cemeteries in 27 states.  Among the events that day was one at Arlington National Cemetery.  Civil War general and future president James A. Garfield delivered a lengthy speech (which you can read here) before the group of 5,000 people laid flowers on more than 20,000 Union and Confederate graves.

Decoration Day proved to be a popular and meaningful event and it grew every year.  Michigan was the first state to declare it an official state holiday in 1871 (all other northern states would do the same by 1890).  In 1881, then-President James Garfield passed legislation granting government workers May 30 off of work to decorate soldiers’ graves.

1991 29¢ Flags on Parade Colorano Silk Cachet First Day Cover
US #2531 FDC – Colorano Silk Cachet First Day Cover

In 1882, the event was first referred to as Memorial Day, though that name didn’t become widespread until after World War II.  Then in 1967 it was made the official name by a federal law.  The following year, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their usual dates to specific Mondays to allow for three-day weekends.  This law went into effect in 1971, when Memorial Day was celebrated on the last Monday in May.

2008 42¢ American Flags 24/7
US #4228-31 – According to the Flag Code, on Memorial Day the flag is to be flown at half-mast until noon, and then at full-mast until sunset.
FREE printable This Day in History album pages
Download a PDF of today’s article.
Get a binder or other supplies to create your This Day in History album.

Discover what else happened on This Day in History.

Did you know the founder of the first Red Cross chapter in Delaware also created America’s Christmas Seals program?  Check back tomorrow for more!

Did you like this article? Click here to rate:
Share this Article


  1. This year (2022), Memorial Day is being observed on its rightful day of May 30 only because it’s the last Monday of May, and it won’t be observed on May 30 again for another eleven years. Let’s follow the wishes of the late World War II veteran and U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and return annual Memorial Day observances to May 30!

  2. I remember when I was growing up, in the 50’s & 60’s, my parents used to refer to it as Decoration Day.
    Either way, it’s the unofficial start of summer in the U.S.

  3. I took this opportunity to explain the meaning of Memorial Day to my five year old twin great grandsons. I do believe they understood the importance of this day. The article says it all.

  4. People keep saying “Happy Memorial Day” …I try to tell them it’s not a Happy Day it’s a day of remembrance. What else could we call it?

  5. I reminded many yesterday that Memorial Day is a holiday to remember and pay a solemn tribute to the thousands of service members who have returned home in a casket. It is not a day of celebration, rather it is a day of tribute and remembrance.

    I also shared a short article, written by a West Point graduate that lost many classmates in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. It was an article entitled, 4,000 dead.

  6. Thank you all for your mention of: “Memorial Day” is being a day of Remembrance, and not a day of celebration say: Independence Day, Easter Sunday, or Christmas Day. I believe as many of you do, that all these special days have become commercialized, to commercialized.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *