The Origins of Memorial Day

"Orphans decorating their fathers' graves in Glenwood Cemetery, Philadelphia, on Decoration Day" (1876)

Not that we don’t relish serving our students and faculty, but as summer is finally here you’ll have to forgive us for looking forward to a nice long Memorial Day Weekend.

Memorial Day has been officially in existence since 1868, when a group of Union Civil War veterans established “Decoration Day” as a day for the nation to remember the war dead and decorate their graves with flowers. (Incidentally, it is believed this is why Memorial Day was chosen to be in late May, as flowers would be in bloom across the country by this time.) A large gathering was held at Arlington National Cemetery that year.

There is some controversy, however, of whether this was the first “Memorial Day” per se. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, “Local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead already had been held in various places. One of the first occurred in Columbus, Miss., April 25, 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves, as well. Today, cities in the North and the South claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1866. Both Macon and Columbus, Ga., claim the title, as well as Richmond, Va. The village of Boalsburg, Pa., claims it began there two years earlier… Approximately 25 places have been named in connection with the origin of Memorial Day, many of them in the South where most of the war dead were buried… (But) in 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the ‘birthplace’ of Memorial Day. There, a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. ”

Today, it is more common to celebrate the day off with a barbecue and a ball game, but we’ll also be taking a moment to remember our service men and women who have died in service to the nation.

The library will be closed May 28-30 for Memorial Day weekend.


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