When Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

U.S. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan issued his General Order 11 establishing May 30 as Decoration Day at national cemeteries to honor soldiers who died in service.

Gen. Logan’s order spoke only to honoring Union soldiers’ sacrifices. Former Confederate states originally refused to acknowledge Decoration Day, and families of Confederate soldiers buried in Arlington National Cemetery were not permitted to visit the grave sites of their relatives after the Civil War.

What’s unique about Decoration Day is the order issued by Gen. Logan applied only to national cemeteries. It had no official force of law elsewhere, but American citizens marked the day without congressional or government decree for decades.

President William McKinley’s order 30 years later to exhume and reinter scattered Confederate remains in the Washington, D.C., area in a special section of Arlington and President William Howard Taft’s later authorization of a Confederate memorial to be placed there finally ended this division. The reconciliation brought about by these two presidents nationally transformed May 30 into an American holiday honoring all who have died in service to the United States.

It wasn’t until 1968 that Congress made Decoration Day an official U.S. holiday called Memorial Day and then moved its observance to the last Monday in the month to create a three-day holiday weekend.

The following article appeared in McClure magazine in 1899:

“Decoration Day, 1899, at Arlington will be recorded in letters of gold by those whose privilege it was to be present. The ceremonies that day brought forth with wondrous lustre all the jewels of Life — Faith, Love, Charity, and last, but not least, Patriotism! As we stood around the tomb dedicated to ‘The Unknown Dead,’ we heard a bugle call, then, as if wafted from the blue hills of Maryland across the Potomac to us, came soft singing. Nearer and louder it came, until from the ancient oaks emerged a band of men, women and children bearing flowers which they scattered as they walked around the tomb of the Unknown. And with the Marine Band playing the accompaniment, the congregation joined in the singing of the hymn ‘Nearer My God to Thee!’

“What changes have been wrought since two years ago, we thought, as we followed the procession and saw that each and every grave received its share of nature’s most beautiful offerings. No longer are the graves of those Confederates left neglected, as in other years. How often they appealed pitifully to us as we strayed amongst them. When interred, their graves were considered beyond the pale, but now they lie between the Grand Army of the Republic and the men who fought in the Spanish War, and so, if left where they are, in the years to come, they will be in the very heart of this great national cemetery.

“After decorating the graves, the crowds turn to the leafy amphitheatre where the exercises of the day are usually held. They cheer president McKinley, as he appears before them and, after listening to the orator at this Army headquarters, he, and some of the Cabinet, repair to the portico of the Lee mansion, where exercises where being held in honor of the Navy. This division was made necessary on this occasion because of the immense crowd which attended, and, also because, it was felt that no single program could do justice, on this great day, to the two branches of the service.

“When President McKinley appeared on the eastern lawn in front of the Navy quarters, he paused for a moment, and, it seemed to us, as if his quick, eagle like, but sunny eyes, flashed signals to the graves of Sheridan on the right, and Porter on the left; telling them that all was now well.”

Wendell Lauth of Bristol is a Trumbull County historian.

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