On this day in history, May 30, 1868, first Decoration Day is held in remembrance of those lost in war

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On this day in history, May 30, 1868, the first Decoration Day — a precursor to Memorial Day — was celebrated. 

Originally known as Decoration Day, from early traditions of decorating graves with flags, flowers and wreaths, Memorial Day is a day for remembrance to honor those who have died in service to our country.  

“This was first widely observed on May 30, 1868, to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, by proclamation of Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former Union sailors and soldiers,” according to PBS.

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During that first national commemoration, former Union Gen. and sitting Ohio Congressman James Garfield gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, after about 5,000 participants decorated the graves of over 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried there, recounts the same source

This national event brought together efforts to pay respect and remember fallen soldiers that began with local observances at burial grounds in several towns throughout the U.S. following the end of the Civil War, says PBS. 

Over the years, the meaning of Decoration Day evolved, gradually expanding from a commemoration of Civil War dead to a day to honor fallen members of US armed forces from all wars, says the American Battle Monuments Commission. 

As the meaning of Decoration Day evolved, so did the name. 

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The evolution of Decoration Day is said to have started on May 5, 1868, by General John Logan, leader of an organization for Civil War veterans from the North.

He called for a nationwide day of remembrance, says the U.S. Airborne and Special Operations Museum. 

The events of the first Decoration Day were filled with patriotism and solemn tributes.

The mission of Gen. Logan’s dedication to honoring fallen heroes is captured by his quote, as the same source notes: “The 30th of May 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

Memorial Day flags

Logan chose May 30, 1868, as Decoration Day because it wasn’t the anniversary of any Civil War battle, said the U.S. Airborne and Special Operations Museum. 

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The events of the first Decoration Day were filled with patriotism and solemn tributes.

On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. 

About 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there, says the same museum. 

As time passed, “Memorial Day” began to supplant “Decoration Day” as the name of the day. 

Although the tributes were moving and distinguished, Decoration Day had not yet been declared an official holiday. 

Local municipalities and states adopted resolutions over the following years to make Decoration Day an official holiday in their areas, according to Military.com. 

“Each of the former Union states had adopted a Decoration Day by 1890,” the site says. 

Memorial Day parade with cars and flags

As time passed, “Memorial Day” began to supplant “Decoration Day” as the name of the day — and it soon became a day to honor all fallen American troops, not just those from the Civil War, says Military.com. 

“After the two World Wars, Memorial Day was the term in more common usage, and the act of remembering all of the fallen took on a renewed importance,” the site recounts.

In 1968, the U.S. government passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. 

In 1968, the U.S. government passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which put major holidays on specific Mondays to give federal employees three-day weekends, says the same source. 

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Memorial Day was one of these holidays, along with Washington’s Birthday, Labor Day and Columbus Day. 

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The act also codified the name Memorial Day into law, the same source notes.

In the present day, American towns and cities host Memorial Day parades each year, often incorporating military personnel and members of veterans’ organizations, says History.com. 

Some of the largest parades take place in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.

Some people wear a red poppy in remembrance of those fallen in war — a tradition that began with a World War I poem. 

Americans also observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials and some wear a red poppy in remembrance of those fallen in war — a tradition that began with a World War I poem, the same source shared. 

On a national level, the Memorial Day Observation Ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery includes a prelude from the United States Marine Corp band, a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and an observance ceremony, says the Arlington National Cemetery site. 

Usually, the president of the United States attends the Memorial Day event there, which is free and open to the public. 

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