Decoration Day, 1869, Washington DC

Matthew Gilmore Discussion
Decoration Day, 1869, Washington DC

The Grand Army of the Republic, in 1868, inaugurated the tradition which would lead to our modern Memorial Day holiday.

Headquarters Grand Army of the Republic,
Washington, D.C., May 5, 1868.

   No. 11

I. The 30th day of May, 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

In 1869 (with more notice) the commemoration really took off. The Evening Star of May 29, 1869 reported that afternoon on the earlier ceremonies of the day. The Star‘s editorial column noted that much federal and municipal business was suspended for the commemoration.

Over one half of the front page of the paper was devoted to the coverage–quite a vast amount, considering the entire paper was only four pages. Crowds at Arlington Cemetery were estimated to be over 25,000, quite a turnout considering the District’s population of approximately 175,000. Getting to the ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery was a challenge–not overcome until the construction of Arlington Memorial Bridge (see my column “The Bridge a Traffic Jam Built: Arlington Memorial Bridge

The ceremonies concentrated on Arlington Cemetery but now included other local cemeteries and war-related monuments (very few in Washington in 1869.)

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