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Posted on May 23, 2008 in Stuff We Like

Memorial Day – A Survey by the Gettysburg Foundation

Gerald D. Swick

This weekend marks the annual Memorial Day observance in America. It was called Decoration Day until 1882. No one knows exactly how or where the holiday began, but it had its origins in the carnage of the Civil War and the desire to remember those who fell. In 1966, Congress officially recognized Waterloo, New York, as the holiday’s birthplace. Waterloo held an observance May 5, 1866, but Memorial Day appears to have grown out of spontaneous acts of remembrance around the country.

Three women in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, began decorating graves in 1864.

Julia Pierpont, wife of Francis H. Pierpont, governor of the Restored Government of Virginia, and their daughter Anna decorated the graves of Union soldiers in Richmond with flowers, probably in May 1866. The following year, Richmond decorated Confederate graves. For many years, North and South observed separate remembrance days.


In 1868, General John A. "Blackjack" Logan officially set aside May 30th as Decoration Day, reportedly based on the French Day of Ashes, when Napoleon’s remains were returned from St. Helena. In 1971, the holiday was changed to the last Monday in May in order to provide a three-day weekend.

This year, the Gettysburg Foundation conducted a survey, asking Americans about their knowledge of Memorial Day’s history. Among its findings:

  • One half of Americans realize that “Four Score and Seven Years Ago” in the Gettysburg Address refers to the Declaration of Independence. One-third of Americans think that it refers to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
  • 65% of respondents think that Memorial Day got its start after World War I. In actuality, Memorial Day began after the Civil War.
  • 60 percent of Americans know that the Battle of Gettysburg took place in Pennsylvania, while 35 percent think that the Battle of Gettysburg took place in Virginia.

The survey results show that a majority of Americans — 82 percent — agree it is very important that we pause to honor the men and women who have died serving their country, the foundation reports. And while a sizable majority agreed on the importance of the day, less than one quarter knew that it had its beginnings in the Civil War era.

“When you think about it,” Gettysburg Foundation President Robert C. Wilburn notes, “our country’s first Memorial Day probably occurred on November 19, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Pennsylvania.”

It would take years before Memorial Day became a tribute not only to all of the Civil War dead, but to soldiers who have given their lives in all of the nation’s wars.

While 71 percent of survey respondents said they would observe Memorial Day in some way, just 15 percent said they would honor the sacrifices of the nation’s soldiers by spending time at a national cemetery or battlefield. Another 15 percent said they would attend a Memorial Day event.


  1. According* to Anna Pierpont Siviter, the Francis H Pierponts’ daughter, following her mother’s(Julia Pierpont), her mother’s friends’, and some Richmond school children’s, including an African American school , cleaning and decorating the neglected graves of Union soldiers in the Richmond Hollywood Cemetery—it was just a few weeks (not the “next year”) that some 1000 persons from the Richmond area decorated the Confederate graves in the Hollywood Cemetery. There were bands, speaking, etc.

    This was in 1866 following the end of the Civil War during Pierpont’s
    serving as Governor of Virginia. He had moved from being the Governor of Restored (Union) Virginia to serving as the Governor of a
    Virginia united. The Pierpont’s home was in Fairmont, West Virginia. They returned to Fairmont in 1868. They lie buried along with 3 of their children in Fairmont’s Woodlawn Cemetery Historic District.

    Fairmont, Marion County, and West Virginia have established a Julia Pierpont Day on the Saturday that begins the Memorial Day week-end for the purpose of cleaning and repairing grave sites along with decorating to remember all veterans and especially those of the Civil War. This is in preparation for the more formal ceremonies on Memorial Day.

    *Anna gives an account of Julia’s (her mother’s) effort to care for the Union graves in the Richmond Hollywood Cemetery in her book RECOLLECTIONS OF WAR AND PEACE published by G. P. Putnam’s and Sons, NY 1938

    Thank you for remembering Julia.

    JoAnn Lough, Julia Pierpont Day Chair for the Marion County Historical Society. Also Chair of the City of Fairmont Historic landmarks Commission

  2. A very nice enlightening article. I always remember those that serve. I also had served 3 years. I would like to ask you your opinion about an old banner that I have. I was told it looks to date around the Civil War 1860’s. It shows a Union and Confederate shaking hands. It conatins the right material and style used at that time period. Would you have any knowledge on these types of artifacts? I do not want a value, just to date it. I think it could date to the date of The Gettysburg Address 1863 or what was called then Decoration Day. Thanks again for your education on this topic. Regards, Bill Miller

    • Bill, at least one 1864 presidential campaign poster for the Democratic Party showed a Confederate soldier extending a hand of friendship across a grave to a wounded Union soldier; possibly this is a poster (or reproduction) from that campaign. Other possibilities would be promo posters for the Civil War Veterans reunions, which would have used similar fonts and paper.

  3. Julia may have decorated a Union grave, but she got the idea from the southern women and schoolchildren. There are 18,000 Confederate graves in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia. The Hollywood Ladies Association and children had been decorating the Confederate graves since at least 1863 or 1865. They celebrated Decoration Day on May 31, but southern dates varied by region.