It’s a well-known fact that Memorial Day grew out of the collective grief our country experienced as a result of the American Civil War. But did you know the idea of it sprang up independently in several places within a matter of just a few years, inspiring like-minded mourners to similar acts of devotion?
On May 5, 1868, General John Logan, recognizing the people’s need to express their sense of loss, declared May 30, Decoration Day – a time for “strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.”
The holiday was later renamed Memorial Day, and was established as a federal holiday in 1971 with the passage of the National Holiday Act. But it’s those first observers, the ones who inspired the holiday with their spontaneous acts of dedication to the fallen, who truly defined it.
A Daughter’s Love
In 1864 Pennsylvania native, Emma Hunter enlisted her friend Sophie Keller to help her pick flowers to put on her father’s grave. Dr. Ruben Hunter succumbed to yellow fever during his tenure as an army medic.
As they made their way to the cemetery, they met Elizabeth Meyers. She lost her son in the Battle of Gettysburg. The three ladies decorated the graves of their loved ones together. Realizing there were other fallen heroes in the cemetery who deserved recognition, they planned to return in a year to renew and expand their devotions.
Others in the little town of Boalsburg got wind of their plan, thought it was a grand idea, and decided to join them. Eventually it grew into a local tradition.
Inspired by Gratitude
In 1865 in Charleston, SC a group of freed slaves were so disturbed by the site of Union soldiers stacked in a mass grave, they pulled the bodies out and buried them individually, giving due respect to the men who had fought for their emancipation.
Waterloo as a Beginning Rather Than an End
Waterloo, NY is widely credited as the first city to hold a celebration in honor of lost Civil War soldiers. In fact in 1966 the state of New York recognized Waterloo as the birthplace of Memorial Day, and the US Congress soon followed.
The observances were the brain child of local druggist Henry C Welles. His suggestion that the town hold an event to recognize those who lost their lives in the war fell on deaf ears for over a year, until he shared it with General John B. Murray. Murray rallied the veterans to the cause, and both he and Welles headed the planning committee.
The first celebration on May 5, 1866 featured flags flown at half mast, a parade of sorts, ceremonies and the culminating activity, the decoration of veterans’ graves. These activities are still popular in modern Memorial Day observances.
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