Who created Memorial Day? Origin and Birthplace Debate Explained

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While Memorial Day is observed across the country in all 50 states and Washington DC, the federal holiday actually has an official birthplace that Americans may not know about.

The day of remembrance for those who died while serving in the US military has been celebrated since 1868, three years after the Civil War ended. But it wasn’t until nearly 100 years later that Congress and then-President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, the “birthplace” of Memorial Day in 1966.

While Congress recognized Waterloo on May 17 of that year and Johnson signed the presidential proclamation nine days later, it was New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller who first proclaimed the city as “place of birth” on March 7, 1966.

It is believed that Waterloo was chosen because the city’s celebration of Memorial Day, also known as Decoration Day, inspired many future celebrations across the United States.

The “birthplace” of Memorial Day in the United States has long been disputed, but it is believed to be Waterloo, New York. Above, members of the US 3rd Infantry Regiment place flags at the headstones of US military personnel buried at Arlington National Cemetery in preparation for Memorial Day, in Arlington, Virginia, May 26, 2022.
Drew Angerer/Getty

The first Memorial Day celebrated in the city dates back to 1866. General John Murray, who fought in the Civil War, formed a committee to dedicate a day to fallen heroes. Villagers quickly embraced the idea, lowering flags, closing all businesses and preparing decorations for each veteran’s grave.

While Waterloo holds the official title as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day, it has long been disputed which US city paid the first tribute to those who died during the Civil War.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), one of the earliest celebrations took place in Columbus, Mississippi, when a group of women decorated the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers in April 1866. Two towns in Georgia, Macon and Columbus, and two in Virginia, Richmond and Boalsburg, have also claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day.

The VA estimates that about 25 places have been named in connection with the origin of Memorial Day, which should not be confused with Veterans Day in November or Armed Forces Day, which occurred on the weekend. last.

The first major sighting took place on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery where various Washington officials gave speeches to children and members of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) – the veterans’ organization of the Union that officially established Memorial Day – marched through the cemetery decorating graves with flowers while reciting prayers and hymns. An estimated 5,000 people attended the event.

Today, the National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to observe a minute of silence at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day to honor those who have died serving their country.

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