Decorating Our Fallen Soldiers: Memorial Day Past and Present

President Lincoln often walked among the graves of the first National Cemetery, just steps from the Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home.

By Curtis Harris

Today, Memorial Day often has a festive atmosphere. It serves as the unofficial kickoff for summer and vacation season as Americans enjoy barbecues and picnics. However, in the aftermath of the Civil War, Memorial Day held a solemn place in the public mind.

Around 625,000 Americans perished in the Civil War which almost equals the total number of dead from all of America’s other wars combined. Nearly every American lost a loved one in this conflict, and certainly knew someone who had, whether they were from the North or South, native-born or immigrant, white or black. To cope with this incredible loss, communities across the North began decorating the graves of their loved ones with flowers.

By 1868, this ritual was so widespread that General John Logan, head of the Grand Army of the Republic, an association of Union war veterans, proclaimed that May 30 should be the official observance across the Union for decorating the graves of soldiers. This Decoration Day, as it was then called, is the genesis of our Memorial Day.

In Southern states, the outpouring of grief was just as pervasive as both former slaves and Confederates carried out the practice of decorating graves from the war dead. In the former Confederacy, formalized decoration days normally occurred in late April or May.

By 1920, sectional reconciliation had occurred and the 30th of May was nationally recognized as Decoration Day, although, currently 9 states still observe some form of Confederate Memorial/Heroes Day. After World War II, “Memorial Day” became the preferred term for Decoration Day and in 1968 Congress officially moved the observance of the day from the fixed date of May 30th that was proclaimed by General Logan to simply the last Monday in May.

This measure symbolically linked Memorial Day not just with its Civil War beginnings but with all American wars. The day now honored all service members who had died in combat. It’s a reminder that Americans have sacrificed for each other before, during and after the Civil War and will continue to do so.

On this Memorial Day, the Armed Forces Retirement Home and President Lincoln’s Cottage will honor these persons with wreath laying ceremonies and tours of the United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery.

The 1st wreath laying ceremony will occur at 11:15am at the Soldiers’ Home and a 2nd ceremony will take place at the cemetery at 12:15pm. Tours of the cemetery will take place at 11:30am and 1:30pm and are free of charge. Reservations are not required but are appreciated. Regularly scheduled Cottage Tours will also be available at the normal price of $15 for adults, $5 for children (ages 6-12), and $12.50 for active duty military. Advance purchase for Cottage Tour tickets is strongly recommended and the only way to guarantee a spot on a tour. Please visit our website to purchase tickets: www.lincolncottage.org.

Be sure to bring a picnic lunch to relax and enjoy the beautiful grounds on the south lawn of the Cottage!

Mr. Harris is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.
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