The exact origin of Memorial Day is unknown, however legend tells us that during the Civil War, women of the South bedecked graves of fallen husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers in order to honor them. By April and May of 1865, Union soldiers began to observe this rite to honor their fallen comrades. Soon the custom spread throughout the North and South and, on May 5, 1866, the ceremony organized by veterans in Waterloo, NY was recognized by Congress as the first Memorial Day.
The officially set date of May 30 was established by Gen. John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, in 1868. It was first known as Decoration Day, but became Memorial Day when it was extended to honor the dead from all wars.
To learn more about Memorial Day, consult Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary and Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar (Matthew Dennis, 221-225).
The BPCL has many more resources on holidays, festival, and celebrations. Here are some of them.
Please note that the Browne Popular Culture Library is closed for the Memorial Day weekend. We will reopen on Tuesday, May 29, 2007.