Memorial Day — a holiday many associate with the start of summer and a day off work — took root in the years following the American Civil War as communities honored their dead.
The nation’s deadliest conflict, the Civil War cost more than 600,000 lives. Many locally formed regiments had losses as high as 20 to 30 percent, devastating entire towns.
“It touched people in all areas of the country at that time,” said Brian Van Schmus, a past camp commander for the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
Even before the Civil War ended, communities began honoring the dead. In the South, women organized to decorate the graves of dead Confederate soldiers.
The daughter of a surgeon in the Union Army and the mother of a private who fought at Gettysburg crossed paths while decorating their loved ones’ graves in Boalsburg, Pa., in October 1864. They agreed to meet again on the very same day the next year. Word spread and on July 4, 1865, the community came out to decorate the graves of all the village’s dead soldiers.
Officially, Waterloo, N.Y., is credited with holding the first Memorial Day observance on May 5, 1866. On that day, flags flew at half-staff as the townsfolk marched to Waterloo’s three cemeteries to pay their respects.
Two years later, Memorial Day (then known as Decoration Day) was made an official holiday.
“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 church-yard in the land.”
So were the orders of Gen. John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans organization.
The day would go on to honor those who had fallen in the wars that followed.
“It continues to this day in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Van Schmus said.
With the help of Boy Scouts troops, Van Schmus and the members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War continue to honor Logan’s order and place flags on the graves of veterans buried in local cemeteries.
“We are honoring those people not just from the Civil War, but all the conflicts who made the ultimate sacrifice,” Van Schmus said.