Memorial Day has many roots. There are numerous competing claims for the first “Decoration Day,” as the holiday was known in the years after the Civil War. But the first large-scale observance took place on May 30, 1868, at the behest of Illinois congressman and former Union Maj. Gen. John A. Logan.
Gen. Logan - known affectionately as “Black Jack” - was a Mexican War veteran and a politician who commanded in the western theater and was famed for his role at the 1863 Battle of Vicksburg and other engagements. After the war, Logan was commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization. On May 5, 1868, he issued General Orders No. 11, establishing May 30 as a day of remembrance for fallen comrades:
“The 30th day 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 church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
“We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, ‘of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.’ What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms.
“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.
“If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.
“Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from his honor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.
“It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to lend its friendly aid in bringing to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.”