The morning of May 5, 1865. The war weary townspeople of Waterloo, New York, continued the recent Sunday ritual of placing flowers, wreaths, and crosses on the graves of their fallen soldiers in their local cemetery. Much the same was happening throughout the country, in both the Northern and Southern states, as Americans slowly healed the wounds that ravaged our young nation during the Great Civil War.
That same day, Henry C. Welles, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, suggested at a social gathering that a more organized and official honor should be shown to the patriotic dead of the Civil War. That idea was embraced by those in attendance, and from there a movement began to take shape.
On May 5, 1866, additional civic societies joined the procession to the three existing cemeteries and were led by veterans marching to martial music. At each cemetery there were impressive and lengthy services including speeches by General Murray and a local clergyman. The ceremonies were repeated again on May 5, 1867.
The following year, Retired Major General Jonathan A. Logan planned another ceremony, this time for the soldiers who survived the war. He led the veterans through town to the cemetery to decorate their comrades' graves with flags. This group was generally referred to as the "Old Guard." It was not a happy celebration, it was a memorial. The townspeople called it Decoration Day. During that memorial ceremony, the General delivered the following proclamation excerpt;
Retired Major General Loan's proclamation;
"The 30th 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 and during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit."
There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women's groups in the South were decorating graves even before the end of the Civil War. A hymn published in 1867, "Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping" by Nella L. Sweet, carried the dedication "To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead" (Source: Duke University's Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920).
At the first official memorial, flowers were placed on the graves of both the Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.