Memorial Day has a long history, reaching back to the end of the Civil War. On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered his army, and soldiers of the North and South went home to their families, their ranks thinned by the war's bloodshed. Thousands upon thousands of the men who went to battle never returned. At home, their families grieved for the fathers and brothers lost to them and looked for a way to memorialize their sacrifices.
In that melancholy spring as the drums of conflict were silenced, days were chosen to honor the war's dead. Flags were put on graves, which were often also decorated with flowers on Decoration Day which we now call Memorial Day. Military organizations, such as the G.A.R. or Grand Army of the Republic, called upon the people to remember the soldiers' sacrifices.
The first documented Memorial Day in the North was at Waterloo, New York, on May 5, 1866. General John A. Logan , then president of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that thereafter May 30 would be a day to decorate with "flowers the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion."
Ceremonies of remembrance continued, almost exclusively for Civil War dead, on different days in late spring. After the Great War (World War I) where many more thousands died on foreign soil, the custom was changed. Now the dead of all American wars were to be remembered. As the twentieth century continued, flowers were placed for veterans of World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Gulf War. In 1971, Memorial Day became a federal holiday, and the official celebration was standardized to the last Monday in May, although some areas still keep their own customs.
On Monday, if you live within driving distance of the Fredericksburg area, you have the opportunity to observe truly historic Memorial Day observances. At 10 o'clock, the Ladies Memorial Association will hold their annual ceremony in the Confederate Cemetery on Washington Avenue. This ceremony has been held annually since 1866.
At 11 o'clock, the National Cemetery, located at what was a strategic point of battle at Marye's Heights, will hold its services. At noon, the Masonic Cemetery on Charles Street next to the James Monroe Museum will honor participants in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War who are buried there.
Two local cemeteries will also hold luminaria observances before Memorial Day. On Saturday, May 28, 2011, from 8 to 11 pm, 15,300 candles will be lit to represent the number of United States soldiers buried in the National Cemetery on Sunken Road. Click here for additional information on parking and related events. A luminaria will also be hosted in the Confederate Cemetery that evening.
Learn More About Memorial Day Online and in the Library
In the Library
Confederate Memorial Days: Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1866-1985.
A compilation of newspaper articles about Confederate Memorial Day celebrations in Fredericksburg, which were held under the sponsorship of the Ladies Memorial Association.
The Folklore of American Holidays.
"A Compilation of more than 500 beliefs, legends, superstitions, proverbs, riddles, poems, songs, dances, games, plays, pageants, fairs, foods, and processions associated with over 120 American calendar customs and festivals."
Memorial Day by Jacqueline S. Cotton.
Introduces the history of Memorial Day and explains how it is observed today. A Rookie Read-about Holidays book.
Memorial Day by Robin Nelson.
A simple introduction to why and how we celebrate Memorial Day.
Memorial Day by Geoffrey Scott.
This beginning reader explains why and how we celebrate Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, a day set aside to honor those who have fought and died in the nation's wars.
On the Web
Fredericksburg National Cemetery
"In July 1865, three months after the restoration of peace between the states, Congress authorized the establishment of a National Cemetery in Fredericksburg to honor the Federal soldiers who died on the battlefields or from disease in camp.
The site chosen was on Marye's Heights, the formidable Confederate position which had proven so impregnable to repeated Federal attacks on December 13, 1862. "
Click in-depth for more detail.
The History of Memorial Day
"Memorial Day is much more than a three-day weekend that marks the beginning of summer. To many people, especially the nation's thousands of combat veterans, this day, which has a history stretching back all the way to the Civil War, is an important reminder of those who died in the service of their country."
From the History Channel.
U.S. Memorial Day History and Information on U.S. War Memorials
"In Memory of our Honored Dead"
The history of the memorable tune, Taps, writings, speeches and poetry, as well as online memories and casualty files. Suggestions for how to observe Memorial Day. Send electronic postcards to your favorite veterans.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has reached out to veterans, family members and related organizations to take part in this year’s annual Memorial Day Observance at The Wall at 1 p.m. on May 30, 2011. Thousands of family members, friends, and veterans are expected to attend.