Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

Memorial Day was originally called “Decoration Day.”

The tradition of “decorating” the graves of soldiers who had died during the Civil War.

One account states that on April 25, 1866, a group of women in Columbus, Mississippi, put flowers on the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers.

When they saw that there were also graves of Union soldiers in that cemetery, they “decorated” them, as well.

People all over the country, in the North and the South, were doing likewise. 

General John Alexander Logan had been a general during the War Between the States.

After the war, he was the national commander of a fraternal organization of veterans called the Grand Army of the Republic.

In March 1868, Logan issued an order calling for a national day of remembrance for Civil War dead.  This order served as the basis for what became the national holiday of Memorial Day.

The original official observance of the day took place on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery.

General James Garfield made a speech there and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers.

After World War I, Decoration Day became known as Memorial Day as the purpose of the day was expanded to honor all U.S. military who had died during all wars and military actions in which the United States had been involved. 

However, it wasn’t until May 1967 when President Johnson signed legislation, that Decoration Day was officially changed to Memorial Day.

Red poppies have become the flower most associated with this holiday.

Inspired by the poem, “In Flanders Fields,” Moina Michael replied with her own poem:

“We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.”

Michael proposed that Americans wear red poppies on Memorial Day to honor all fallen American heroes.

She was the first to do so and she sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Others followed suit, and poppies were soon being sold in other countries.

Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) became the first veterans organization to sell poppies nationally. 

Two years later their “Buddy” poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans. 

The red poppy is still the international symbol for the veneration of fallen heroes and the remembrance of their sacrifice.