Memorial Day 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, which states -
"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. 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."
It was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873, and by 1890 it was recognized by all of the Northern states.
The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war).
It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 - 363) to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays).
Several Southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the War Dead of the Confederacy.
Alabama: April 26
Georgia: April 26
Florida: April 26
Mississippi: April 26
North Carolina: May 10
South Carolina: May 10
Louisiana: June 3 (Jefferson Davis' Birthday)
Tennessee (Confederate Decoration Day): June 3
Texas (Confederate Heroes Day): January 19
Virginia: Last Monday in May
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service.
There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day, and there is also evidence that organized women's groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War:
A hymn published in 1867 - "Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping" - by Nella L. Sweet - carried this dedication: "To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead" .
'The Bivouac of the Dead'...
The muffled drum's sad roll has beat
The soldier's last Tattoo;
No more on life's parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
On Fame's eternal camping ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And glory guards, with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.
No rumour of the foe's advance
Now swells upon the wind;
No troubled thought at midnight haunts
Of loved ones left behind.
No vision of the morrow's strife
The warrior's dream alarms;
No braying horn, nor screaming fife,
At dawn shall call to arms.
Their shivered swords are red with rust,
Their plumed heads are bowed;
Their haughty banner, trailed in dust,
Is now their martial shroud.
And plenteous funeral tears have washed
The red stains from each brow;
And the proud forms, by battle gashed,
Are free from anguish now.
The neighing troop, the flashing blade,
The bugle's stirring blast,
The charge, the dreadful cannonade,
The din and shouts are past;
Nor war's wild note, nor glory's peal,
Shall thrill with fierce delight;
Those breasts that never more may feel
The rapture of the fight.
Like the fierce Northern hurricane
That sweeps the great plateau,
Flushed with triumph, yet to gain,
Come down the serried foe;
Who heard the thunder of the fray
Break o'er the field beneath,
Knew the watchword of the day
Was "Victory or death!"
Long had the doubtful conflict raged
O'er all that stricken plain,
For never fiercer fight had waged
The vengeful blood of Spain;
And still the storm of battle blew,
Still swelled the glory tide;
Not long, our stout old Chieftain knew,
Such odds his strength could bide.
Twas in that hour his stern command
Called to a martyr's grave
The flower of his beloved land,
The nation's flag to save.
By rivers of their father's gore
His first-born laurels grew,
And well he deemed the sons would pour
Their lives for glory too.
For many a mother's breath has swept
O'er Angostura's plain,
And long the pitying sky has wept
Above its moldered slain.
The raven's scream, or eagle's flight,
Or shepherd's pensive lay,
Alone awakes each sullen height
That frowned o'er that dread fray.
Sons of the Dark and Bloody Ground
Ye must not slumber there,
Where stranger steps and tongues resound
Along the heedless air.
Your own proud land's heroic soil
Shall be your fitter grave;
She claims from war his richest spoil,
The ashes of her brave.
Thus 'neath their parent turf they rest,
Far from the gory field,
Borne to a Spartan mother's breast
On many a bloody shield;
The sunshine of their native sky
Smiles sadly on them here,
And kindred eyes and hearts watch by
The heroes sepulcher.
Rest on, embalmed and sainted dead,
Dear as the blood ye gave,
No impious footstep here shall tread
The herbage of your grave.
Nor shall your glory be forgot
While fame her record keeps,
For honor points the hallowed spot
Where valor proudly sleeps.
Yon marble minstrel's voiceless stone
In deathless song shall tell,
When many a vanquished age hath flown,
The story how ye fell.
Nor wreck, nor change, nor winter's blight,
Nor time's remorseless doom,
Shall dim one ray of glory's light
That gilds your deathless tomb.
Written in 1847, Theodore O'Hara's stirring poem - 'The Bivouac of the Dead' - was composed to honor American dead at the Battle of Buena Vista, fought during the War with Mexico.
Born in Danville, Kentucky in 1820, O'Hara served as Captain and Assistant Quartermaster with the Kentucky Volunteers during that war and later volunteered to lead a contingent of Kentucky soldiers during the 1850 expedition to free Cuba, where he was severely wounded.
While recuperating, he became involved in journalism and edited a newspaper in Louisville.
Military life still beckoned and he joined the US Army in 1855, serving for a year with the 2nd US Cavalry.
In 1856, O'Hara moved to Mobile, Alabama, where he became editor of the Mobile Register until the outbreak of the Civil War.
He raised the "Mobile Light Dragoons" in the city and was elected Company Captain, before joining the 12th Alabama Volunteer Infantry where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
He later served on the staff of General Albert Sidney Johnston and General John Breckenridge.
After the war, O'Hara became a merchant in the cotton business until wiped out by a devastating fire.
He retired to a friend's plantation in Alabama where he died in 1873 from malaria - the following year, his remains were re-interred in the military cemetery in Frankfort, Kentucky.
Remember the Fallen - not just from this war but from all of our wars.
The WWI poet - Lawrence Binyon - had this to say.
"They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them ... nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them..."
Take a few minutes to clean their stones and if you can - leave some small remembrance.
They deserve this small recognition of the sacrifice they paid...