Today in History: Memorial Day (Decoration Day) is Born

1949 Memorial Day Parade in Clinton Square, downtown Syracuse

According to, “Memorial Day was borne out of the Civil War and a desire to honor our dead. It was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11. ‘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,’ he proclaimed.

The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.

Onondaga County veterans initiated their observance of Decoration Day the following May 30th, in 1869, when a procession of veterans and citizens traveled from City Hall to several Syracuse cemeteries and placed about 1,600 floral bouquets upon soldiers’ graves. Clergymen prayed, choirs sang, and the entire assembly reflected upon those who “gave the last full measure of devotion.”

The alternative name Memorial Day was first used in 1882, but didn’t catch on until after World War II, though Syracuse newspapers used the term as early as 1919. Following World War I, commemorations included military personnel who died in all American wars and, until that point, southern states refused to recognize the holiday, instead honoring their soldiers lost in the Civil War on a separate day.

In May 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson officially declared Waterloo, NY the birthplace of Memorial Day, though many other towns have also claimed to be its hometown. However, Waterloo’s claim  may have resulted in a newspaper typo in the late 19th century when a newspaper reporter wrote  “fifteen” instead of “seventeen.”

In 1971, the Uniform Holidays Bill officially moved observing Memorial Day on its traditional May 30th to the last Monday in May and made it a Federal holiday.

You can learn about Onondaga County’s service men and women at OHA’s Military History Museum at the Onondaga County War Memorial.