Ask A Librarian

The Tradition of Memorial Day

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
May 26th, 2015

Blog post by Lori Hostuttler, Digital Projects and Outreach Archivist, WVRHC.


By the time this is posted, most readers will be back to work after a long weekend.  Although the holiday has passed, the purpose and practice of observing Memorial Day is worthy of reflection every day of the year.


The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a Union veteran’s organization, established Decoration Day to honor the veterans who lost their life in service during the Civil War.  On May 30, 1868, 5000 people attended a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery and decorated the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. 


Grand Army of the Republic Pin

This GAR pin belonged to James S. Watson of Uffington in Monongalia County, West Virginia. At the time of his death in 1907 he was Senior Vice Commander of the West Virginia GAR.


Before this first GAR observance, many other localities around the country had already begun the tradition of honoring their war dead.  Southern women may have begun the tradition of decorating graves with flowers to venerate fallen soldiers.  Cities in Mississippi, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Illinois held remembrance ceremonies and claim to have the first observance of the holiday. In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson officially recognized Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day.


In West Virginia, where rural conditions made winter travel difficult, the tradition of a spring memorial service was already in place.  When weather improved, usually by May, cemeteries were cleaned and graves decorated to commemorate those who had died during the winter.  Honoring soldiers at this time of year fit naturally into local practice.  Although the origins of the Memorial holiday are multifaceted, similar sentiment existed in both North and South and conformed with local traditions.


After World War I, Decoration Day evolved to honor all who lost their lives during any war.  Gradually the name changed as well, becoming Memorial Day as we know it now.  In the twentieth century, the holiday was celebrated on May 30, no matter what day of the week it was, until 1971 when Congressional legislation took effect that made it a Monday holiday.  Hence, the three day weekend many just enjoyed.


Two items from the West Virginia & Regional History Center illustrate Decoration Day observances in West Virginia.


On Decoration Day, May 30, 1893, Waitman T. Willey, West Virginia founding father and U.S. Senator, spoke before the Meade Post of the GAR and a large group of citizens in Fairmont.  The transcript of his talk is recorded in a booklet that is part of the WVRHC Printed Ephemera collection.


Front cover of Address of W.T. Willey Before Meade Post of the Grand Army, 1893

Willey focused on answering the questions in his address, “For what are we indebted to our soldiers in the late civil war? What did they accomplish for us?”   As a Unionist speaking to a GAR crowd, Willey specifically talked about the achievement of Union soldiers.


Waitman T. Willey Portrait,

Waitman Thomas Willey


Willey ended his talk with a grand summary of Union accomplishments and then chastised anyone who would not support benefits and relief for veterans:


Thus, I have attempted to answer the inquiry with which this discussion was commenced for what are we indebted to the soldiers who fought for the Union in the late Civil War?  Summarized my answer is:

They preserved our national unity. They destroyed human slavery.  They completed the work of civil liberty, inaugurated by our fathers, and made all men equal before the law. They removed the causes of sectional, social and political discord which had, theretofore, distracted the nation, and thus prepared the way for more harmonious relations.  They solved the great problem of man’s capacity for self-government; and we owe it to them that we yet have ‘a government of the people, by the people and for the people.’  They endowed the republic with immeasurable possibilities of growth and greatness, And, they made a record in history which will be an inspiration to liberty, and an example to patriotism forever. And, therefore, I have to say, in conclusion: Very ungrateful, indeed, very flagrantly deficient in the sentiment of genuine patriotism, must that American citizen be, whether of high or low degree, who could regard such benefactors as these with indifference, or who would refuse to those of them who survive, the most adequate and generous, relief for their disabilities incurred in the service of their country. No pretext of public economy could ever hide the iniquity of such a refusal.


It appears with this last statement that Willey is referring to the passage of the Dependent and Disability Relief Act of 1890.   Although the address was given a few years after the approval of the act, the GAR had lobbied relentlessly to get a strong pension bill in the late 1880s.  Perhaps Willey was still bothered that it had been such a struggle?


Former Confederates also observed Memorial Day but on dates other than May 30 until after World War I.  A photograph from the WVRHC photographs collection shows a Confederate Decoration Day procession in Moorefield, West Virginia, in 1908 and confirms the variable date.


Confederate Decoration Day, Moorefield, Hardy County, W. Va.

The inscription on the back of this photo reads: “Until after World War I, Decoration Day in Moorefield was always held on June 6th every year. Flowers and wreaths were always prepared by Daughters of the Confederacy. Appropriate services were held at Inskeep Hall with addresses by invited speakers and a procession then proceeded to the cemetery where further services were held and graves decorated, children carrying the wreaths and flowers. When the custom was discontinued most of the ceremony was also discontinued.


More images of Decoration Day and Memorial Day services in West Virginia can be found in West Virginia History OnView.



For national Memorial Day history:


For West Virginia Memorial Day history:


For information on Civil War pensions:

Comments are closed.