According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 25 cities and towns—including two named Columbus, one in Mississippi, one in Georgia—claim to have originated Memorial Day in the years immediately before Grand Army of the Republic leader John A. Logan designated May 30, 1868, as a day “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.”
The idea for Memorial Day (known as Decoration Day in the 1800s) did not arise with General Logan; he had been inspired by local commemorations of Civil War dead already being held in pockets throughout the North and the South, in some cases before the war had even concluded. Logan, in fact, had delivered the keynote address at an April 29, 1866, Decoration Day commemoration in Carbondale, Illinois, in which Union Army veterans paraded in tattered uniforms and spread flowers on cemetery graves. Logan’s wife wrote in her 1913 memoir that she had suggested the holiday after becoming so moved by “the little flags and the withered flowers that had been laid” on Confederate graves in Petersburg, Virginia. Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claims the holiday originated there even earlier when in 1864 a teenager mourning her Union Army father and a mother honoring her son who fell at Gettysburg laid flowers on their graves and began an annual town tradition.
The federal government weighed in on the debate 50 years ago when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a May 26, 1966, proclamation that “officially recognized that the patriotic tradition of observing Memorial Day began one hundred years ago in Waterloo, New York.” The small Finger Lakes village first staged an annual community-wide commemoration of its war dead on May 5, 1866, when businesses shuttered and residents draped buildings in black crepe and adorned soldiers’ graves with flowers and flags. Although Congress designated Waterloo, now home to the National Memorial Day Museum, as the holiday’s birthplace, the other contenders haven’t been dissuaded. The argument over who gave birth to Memorial Day remains a holiday tradition.