Our national holidays can be traced to specific events occurring on specific dates, such as an act of congress or a presidential proclamation. Regarding Memorial Day, some of our presidents and the congress left fingerprints on the history of the day in recent years, however, at least in my opinion, Memorial Day came about more as a result of spontaneous and sustained combustion than a result of high falutin’ proclamations.
There is a lot of info about Memorial Day available on the web. Wikipedia has a good treatment. A condensation and flavoring of snippets from these sources follows.
Before and during the Civil War, services were occasionally held in cemeteries in the north and in the south to honor those who died in war. The ceremonies involved sprucing up gravesites needing such attention and decorating the graves with flowers or other mementoes. The first official act in the history of Memorial Day was May 5, 1868, when General John Logan, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of Union Civil War veterans, issued a proclamation calling for the observance of a “Decoration Day” annually and across the nation. The first observance was on May 30 that year. The date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular Civil War battle. And by that time of year, winter could no longer keep flowers from visually shouting, “Alleluia!”
Memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states that first year. The northern states adopted the holiday and by 1890, all the northern states observed Decoration Day.
There is evidence to suggest General Logan adapted, for his purposes, the annual Confederate Memorial Day custom that began in 1866. Ladies of Columbus, Georgia, are considered to have played a key role in establishing and promoting the practice of honoring Confederate soldiers who died in battle. Women’s organizations in the North, as well as in the South, played key roles in spreading the practice across the country. In subsequent years, various states in the North lay claim of the “We observed it first” sort. Presidents and even the congress proclaimed support for some of these claims.
Tomorrow, the real first observance of the day.