The question of why the U.S. celebrates Memorial Day has a clear answer: the holiday now celebrated on the last Monday in May began as a way to remember the approximately 620,000 troops who died during the Civil War. The question of how Americans tend to spend Memorial Day weekend has a clear answer, too: grilling, going to the beach, checking out Memorial Day sales, watching Memorial Day parades, sitting in traffic.
But the question of where Memorial Day was started generates a lot of different answers.
“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,” according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
One of those places seems to have a particularly strong claim. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation recognizing Waterloo, N.Y., as the birthplace of Memorial Day, in recognition of the centennial of its first observance of the day. The town claims it first celebrated Memorial Day on May 5, 1866, at which point businesses closed, flags flew at half staff, and residents decorated graves of the fallen.
But, despite the presidential proclamation and its official title as the holiday’s birthplace, its claim is “absolutely myth,” argues Richard Gardiner, professor of social science education at Columbus State University, who co-wrote The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday in America with Daniel Bellware. “Waterloo did not have a Memorial Day ceremony in May of 1866.”
Gardiner and Bellware found a June 5, 1883, Seneca County News article aggregating a Syracuse Sunday Herald article that referred to a Memorial Day celebration that took place in 1866. The story cited Civil War General-turned-Seneca County Clerk John Murray and local pharmacist Henry Welles as the event’s organizers, and reported that Welles died two months after the event. But the article had made a mistake, and a correction was printed within a week, stating “the first service was held here in 1868.”
That later date is further supported by a May 1875 article in Phelps, N.Y.’s Neighbor’s Home Mail newspaper, featuring a reflection from someone who had attended the first Memorial Day in Waterloo, which happened “seven years ago,” meaning 1868. Furthermore, Welles couldn’t have died two months after the first Memorial Day if it took place in 1866, because Gardiner and Bellware found his obituary in the Waterloo Observer from July 8, 1868.
Another clip indicates that the idea for a Memorial Day didn’t originate in Waterloo, either. A June 4, 1885, Seneca Falls County Courier article notes that Murray was inspired to organize a Memorial Day during a trip to the South after he “observed the beautiful custom…of strewing flowers upon the graves of departed friends. It occurred to him that it would be fitting for the soldiers thus formally to remember his dead comrades. Returning, he put his idea into practice in the cemetery at Waterloo in the spring of 1868.”
Gardiner and Bellware believe representatives of Waterloo, N.Y., must have relied on the first 1883 article that had mistakes in it, and simply didn’t see the corrections printed shortly afterwards.
Looking further south for the true origins of the holiday, Gardiner and Bellware dug up newspaper clips that suggest that a widow in Columbus, Ga., may have first had the idea.
Mary Ann Williams, secretary of the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Columbus, Ga., is thought to have encouraged the organization to start an annual holiday while regularly putting flowers on the graves of soldiers including her husband, who died in the war. A letter she wrote urging Southerners to come together one day a year to put flowers on the graves of the fallen was published in the Columbus Daily Sun in early March 1866.
“We cannot raise monumental shafts, and inscribe thereon their many deeds of heroism, but we can keep alive the memory of the debt we owe them by dedicating at least one day in each year to embellishing their humble graves with flowers,” she wrote. She proposed that April would be a good time for such an event — in the South, April is a great time for flowers — but originally asked for suggestions about which precise date would be best. The suggestion that ended up most widely published was April 26, the first anniversary of the Confederate surrender in North Carolina, which came just a few weeks after the better known surrender at Appomattox.
That letter got picked up throughout the state within a couple of weeks, and syndicated nationwide over the next month. But another misprint in a newspaper would preclude the holiday’s inventors from being the first to celebrate the holiday.
That honor, coincidentally and confusingly enough, has gone to residents of another American city named Columbus.
Gardiner says there’s enough primary evidence to prove that women in the Civil War hospital town of Columbus, Miss., celebrated the first Memorial Day because they followed what was written in March 1866 articles that appeared in the Memphis Daily Avalanche and the Pulaski Citizen. Those stories reported that Columbus, Ga., was urging people to celebrate April 25 instead of April 26 as Memorial Day. The fact that they celebrated a day before most people is why people such as President Barack Obama have given them the credit for celebrating Memorial Day, even if experts such as Gardiner say it wasn’t their idea.
Newspapers reporting on those early Memorial Day celebrations noted that ladies throughout the South were leaving flowers not only on the graves of Confederate soldiers, but also of Union soldiers. As a May 9, 1866, article in the New York Commercial Advertiser, described the gesture made by Columbus, Ga., attendees, “Let this incident, touching and beautiful as it is, impart to our Washington authorities a lesson in conciliation, forbearance, and brotherly love.” A May 30, 1866, Cleveland Plain Dealer article said of the gesture made by Columbus, Miss., attendees, “It kindles a spark of hope…We have one God; one language, on Government; and may we not hope that we shall eventually become indeed one people.”
After reading an account of the Columbus, Miss., celebration, Ithaca lawyer Francis M. Finch was inspired to write a poem “The Blue and the Gray,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in Sep. 1867, which is thought to have spread the word even further about Southern Memorial Day celebrations.
General John A. Logan, who ran the Union Army veterans organization the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), must have heard of the 1866 Memorial Day activities in Georgia. In a speech he delivered in Salem, Ill., that summer, he commented derisively on the “traitors in the South [who] have their gatherings day after day and strew garlands upon the graves of rebel soldiers.” Yet nearly two years later, on May 5, 1868, he issued a proclamation from his Washington, D.C., office urging members of the GAR to celebrate Memorial Day — “Decoration Day,” as he called it — on May 30. By then, he believed, the “choicest flowers of springtime” would have bloomed. The press reported on the proclamation, and it stuck.
So the women of Columbus pioneered the idea but Logan made it go national, Gardiner’s and Bellware’s research argues.
Congress made May 30 a national holiday in 1889. (A 1968 law moved it to the last Monday in May.) Perhaps not surprisingly, around the turn of the 20th century, more towns and cities start claiming they started Memorial Day.
The confusion is understandable.
“So many people are claiming they started Memorial Day because they remember a cemetery dedication or remember going to a graveyard and throwing flowers on graves earlier than 1866,” says Gardiner. “In many cases they’re telling the truth. But, in my view, they didn’t necessarily start an annual tradition. They didn’t say, ‘Let’s do this every year.’”
For instance, some consider Charleston, S.C., the birthplace of Memorial Day because of an 1865 cemetery dedication there, which was organized by former slaves, but Gardiner argues that it doesn’t quite count as the start of the holiday because it wasn’t repeated every year. Still, it stands out as an amazing story — and as historian David Blight once said, that event perhaps tells us more about America than we could ever learn by knowing who came up with Memorial Day first.