As published first on Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanraab/2014/05/26/the-real-story-of-memorial-day/
By Nathan Raab for Forbes
Very few of us will ring in Memorial Day as it was done in the beginning. Today we think of hot dogs, parades, and long weekends. Back then, it was a more solemn occasion born out of the loss and hardship of the Civil War.
John Logan, an obscure figure today, was Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic when he issued General Order No. 11 in 1868, which formally established the holiday on May 30 “for the purpose of strewing flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of Comrades who died in the defense of their country.” Just 3 years earlier, this long conflict had ended, and the country was still in full recovery.
So what did the first formal Memorial Day look like? The short answer? Fewer hot dogs. More flowers.
If you went, you would have received this invitation, the original of which is in The Raab Collection archives (note the black border, which was used for occasions of mourning).
Imagine taking your carriage to Arlington National Cemetery for the reading of Logan’s General Order, followed by a prayer, hymn, and then speech by General and future President James Garfield. A patriotic song and poem later, you would have joined your friends by walking with the orphaned children of the war and strewing flowers on the graves, ending at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. This too you would have decorated with flowers.
Once at the Tomb, you would have heard Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address recited, and then gone off to decorate the entire cemetery with flowers, before hearing a performance of the Star Spangled Banner and returning home. The Gettysburg Address remains the best monument to fallen soldiers in the Civil War, and recalled the President’s assassination at the end of conflict.
Here is an infographic we put together with more on the history of Memorial Day.