Several cities and organizations claim to have started the Memorial Day holiday in the years following the American Civil War. Initially known as Decoration Day, communities gathered together to remember the soldiers who died fighting during those four years of conflict. The Civil War claimed approximately 620,000 military lives and many national cemeteries were dedicated to those losses. A few southern cities held memorials for their dead in the years immediately following the war, but the first widely recognized event was in May 1868.
General John A. Logan had served in the Union Army and was a Commander-in-Chief of the veteran’s organization the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). On March 3, 1868, Logan issued GAR General Order No. 11, which outlined a national day of remembrance for the fallen. May 30 was chosen, as it did not coincide with a significant battle anniversary. Many claim that Logan took the idea for a day of mourning from The Ladies Memorial Association in Georgia and while there are obvious links communities around the world have set aside days, festivals, and ceremonies to fallen soldiers for centuries.
On May 30, 1868, a large ceremony was held at Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington, DC, setting in motion General Logan’s plans. James Garfield, then an Ohio Congressman, spoke to a massive crowd before a group of nearly 5,000 volunteers decorated more than 20,000 graves. “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue,” James A. Garfield, May 30, 1868, Arlington National Cemetery.
Youngstown has a significant connection to the Logan family. General John A. Logan’s son, John A Logan II, married Edith H. Andrews, the daughter of local iron baron Chauncey H. Andrews. The younger John got his chance to follow in his father’s military footsteps in 1898 during the Spanish American War. He served again the following year in the Philippines as conflict broke out over American control in the region. On November 11, 1899, now a Major, Logan led an attack into enemy fire. The unit immediately began taking sniper fire from their flank and a sergeant next to Logan was shot. He bent down to help the man, but he too was killed by a sniper.
News of Logan’s death tore through the local community and The Youngstown Vindicator had months of coverage, as his body was brought home and investigations into the nature of his death were started. In the end, Logan was considered a true war hero and his homecoming included a solemn parade. Logan is buried in Youngstown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. In 1902, Logan was posthumously given the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, for his gallantry against the enemy.
The name “Memorial Day” was sporadically used by the 1880s, but it had yet to take complete hold over the holiday. By the end of the 1890s, the holiday was officially celebrated in every former Union state. The trend had existed in former Confederate states for years, but they weren’t really on board with the larger national celebration. In fact, many former Confederate states hold a separate Confederate Memorial Day to this day.
It wasn’t until World War I that its scope broadened to include remembrances for the military dead from other wars. In the late 1960s, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which set Memorial Day as the last Monday in May, the first being in 1971. In recent decades, the Memorial Day holiday has become the doorway to summer when families host picnics, enjoy retail sales, and celebrate the coming warm weather months. Many veterans’ groups have pushed back against this trend and have lobbied for the date to go back to May 30 in an effort to keep its original intention at the forefront of the day.
Here in the Mahoning Valley, Memorial Day has been marked by more than a century of special events. Youngstown’s 1950 event, like many prior, began with a morning service at Wick Park and another at the Palace Theatre, followed by a parade of Service and Veteran’s groups downtown. Area communities like Struthers, Boardman, Lake Milton, and Campbell held similar events.
Reporter Janie S. Jenkins wrote in the May 26, 1975, edition of the Youngstown Vindicator, “Remembering can be either exquisitely sweet or wrenchingly painful or perhaps a misty-eyed blur of those very privileged human emotions.” The year marked the first time in nearly 20 years that no American service men or women were engaged in a battle, save for an incident in Cambodia just two weeks before. The year also marked the beginning of the nation’s bicentennial celebrations with many remembering the soldiers who died in the American Revolution beginning in 1775. Throughout the decades since, Memorial Day events have looked relatively the same – placing flags at the graves of veterans, waving as the parades go by, and tearing up as speakers remember the sacrifice of those who gave the last full measure of devotion.
In 2015, Boardman held its 111th Memorial Day parade and program. Taking part in the festivities was Betty Harris, a World War II veteran with the Women’s Auxiliary Volunteer Emergency Services unit (WAVES). After the musical program, she noted, “when I hear those songs, I want to cry. I’m so patriotic and so grateful to be from this country.” Harris’ patriotism extended to her gardens, too, “my flower beds were all red, white and blue,” she told the Vindicator.
2020’s Memorial Day will likely look a lot different as compared to years’ past, but the message and meaning of the holiday remain strong. With heavy hearts, we thank and remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.