Memorial Day in Washington State

  • By Nancy Burkhalter, Ph.D. and David Wilma
  • Posted 5/24/2007
  • Essay 7777
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The tradition of remembering the dead in Washington every May 30 came west along with veterans of the Civil War's Union Army and was named both  Memorial Day and Decoration Day. Originally an annual observance organized by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) to honor Union war dead, the event grew to involve parades, elaborate orations, and finally to remember and honor all those who had died. It took more than 50 years for the acrimony between partisans of the Union and Confederate causes to dissolve and for veterans of both sides to remember together their fallen bretheren.

Logan's Mission

On May 5, 1868, John A. Logan (1826-1886) Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal and political organization of Union Army veterans, issued an order setting aside May 30 to remember those who died serving the Union during the Civil War. Logan was inspired by an account from his wife who had just seen women in Petersburg, Virginia, decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers there. Columbus, Mississippi, seems to have claim to being the first to decorate both Union and Confederate graves in 1863, but the practice of remembering the dead with flowers dates to ancient Greece. Decoration ceremonies sprang up spontaneously across the South after the cessation of hostilities in the spring of 1865. Waterloo, New York, held a like event that same year. One significant memorial was in Charleston, South Carolina, where more than 10,000 freed slaves dedicated a cemetery holding the remains of Union prisoners of war.

The impact of the the Civil War on Americans is hard to comprehend in the twenty-first century. Almost as many Americans -- officially 620,000, 2 percent of the population -- died in those four years as in all the rest of U.S. wars combined. Civilian casualties were not counted. Many more people had their lives shortened by wounds and the rigors of field service. In 2007, an estimated 2 percent of the U.S. estimated population would equal more than six million lives.

John Logan, a congressman from Illinois and a former Union Major General, selected late May to take advantage of blooming flowers across the nation. His order instructed GAR members to set aside the day for the "strewing of flowers, or otherwise, decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion" and to "gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choices flowers of springtime" (The New York Times, May 31, 1868).

Remembering the Dead Differenly

In 1873, New York was the first state to declare May 30 a holiday and by 1890, all Northern states recognized it as Decoration Day, as it was widely known, or Memorial Day, as the GAR would have it called. The Washington Territorial Legislature established Memorial Day or Decoration Day as a legal holiday beginning in 1888. In 1891, the Washington State Legislature set May 30 as a legal state holiday, calling it both Memorial Day and Decoration Day.

As a GAR event, many orators expounded on the glorious Union victory and perpetuated the bitter feelings of the war often at the expense of Confederates, freed slaves, and abolitionists. Some years at Arlington National Cemetery, guards prevented people from decorating Confederate graves. In New York City Confederate veterans marching in the Memorial Day parade could not fly their battle flag or wear their uniforms.

But other communities embraced all of the fallen. In 1874, the Decoration Society of Illinois set no distinctions and decorated the graves of all the war dead. Southern communities, where most of the Union dead rested, made little distinction in honoring soldiers. During and after Reconstruction, the Confederate events usually featured the Southern view of the war's causes and conduct. Few of the events celebrated the emancipation of slaves as the cause for which so many died.

The U.S. Army adopted regulations specifying flying flags at half-staff until noon, 21 gun salutes, and the playing of dirges. Navy dead -- most of whom were buried at sea -- were remembered with small ships filled with flowers to be carried to sea by the tide.
Southern states observed their own memorial days which varied between April and June (Jefferson Davis's birthday). Nine states of the old Confederacy -- Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia -- continued to observe different Confederate Memorial Days.

Flags and Many Flowers

Washington Territory contributed few volunteers to the conflict. Washington Territory's first governor, Isaac I. Stevens (1817-1862) died wearing Union blue at the head of his regiment in Virginia. Outside of King County the tiny non-Indian population of the 1860s was predominantly Democratic and feelings against President Abraham Lincoln's Republic Party and the policy of abolition of slavery ran high. Migration in the 1870s and 1880s multiplied Washington’s population several times over and included many veterans, mostly Union. They formed chapters of the GAR, just one of many fraternal societies that grew up in the United States in the last half of the nineteenth century. The observances were somewhat limited by the absence of the graves of Union soldiers until survivors began to die and be buried in the Northwest.

Probably the first GAR Memorial Day in Washington took place in Seattle in 1879 organized by the Isaac Stevens Post No. 1. The Tacoma post, named after George Custer, organized in 1881 and held an observance the following year which eventually included Mexican War veterans. Spokane's GAR honored Union dead for the first time in 1885. The GAR typically published written orders in the local newspaper as if it were an occupying army calling for a gathering, a parade, and some sort of memorial service. If there was no cemetery handy, a committee reported in at the ceremony that all the appropriate graves had been honored.

In 1889, Seattle firefighters festooned horse-drawn, hook-and-ladder fire trucks with red, white, and blue flowers. A little girl, also wearing national colors, sat atop the funnel. Women formed an auxiliary to the GAR called the Northern Women's Relief Corps.

Beginning in 1900, as the number of Civil War veterans dwindled, Spanish American War veterans stepped in to join the parades. The former members of the First Washington Volunteers (Philippine Insurrection) donned their blue wool uniforms, leggings, and campaign hats to march with the GAR. The day grew to honor all lost loved ones. In 1901, the Seattle Mail and Herald said, "today not only the graves of fallen defenders of the country's flag, but those of all the dead, will, wherever possible, be decorated with flowers by loving relatives and friends." 

Memorial Day still remained a GAR function. As late as 1910, Confederate veterans did not actively participate nor were they acknowledged in Seattle observances although the Robert E. Lee Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Seattle sent flowers. That year a Spokane judge, the son of a Confederate soldier, gave the oration and The Spokesman Review printed, "Wreaths and garlands, parade and pomp, music and eulogy, each dashed with tears, yesterday formed Spokane's tribute to the soldier dead of the blue and gray and attested to Spokane's reverence for the surviving saviors of the nation in two wars." But the Confederate veterans did not march that day in Spokane.

World War I and After

World War I saw an end to any lingering sectional divide in the observances. On May 30, 1920, the few remaining vets of Antietam, Gettysburg, and Bull Run marched (or rode in automobiles) for the "glory of their dead comrades through Seattle streets" (The Seattle Times, May 31, 1920) blue and gray together. The old soldiers were joined by men from the Spanish American War and Philippine Insurrection (1898-1902), members of the newly formed American Legion -- veterans of the recent World War I -- and Canadians.

The Seattle Times claimed that the program in 1920 would be the "most elaborate" in the state's history, lasting nine days and including a parade of "more than 4,000 veterans of the World War" (May 9). In 1921, the Seattle newspaper printed, "Thousands marched, but many thousands more who could not join the big parade, gathered along the downtown avenues to cheer them, and all traffic stopped for more than an hour" (May 30, 1921). In 1929, a two-mile-long parade snaked through downtown Seattle.

States set their own Memorial Day, usually May 30. Congress did not get around to establishing Memorial Day as a holiday until the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90-363) changed it to the last Monday in May, ensuring a three-day weekend for that and all other federal holidays.

Sources: "The First Decoration Day Proclamation," Patriotic Memorial Days, Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction. 1989, p. 65; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery – Seattle" (by David Wilma), (accessed May 15, 2006); "Meier Sets Keynote of Patriotism," The Seattle Times, May 31, 1920; "Memorial Day Program Will Be Most Elaborate," Ibid., May 9, 1920; "Seattle To Pay Homage to Men Who Gave Lives," Ibid., May 30, 1920; "Thousands March to Honor Heroes," Ibid., May 30, 1921; "Veterans of Three Conflicts Take Lead in Service," Ibid., May 30, 1929; "Veterans of Three Conflicts Take Lead in Service," Ibid., May 30, 1889; "Grand Army of the Republic -- Gen. Logan Assumes Command," The New York Times, January 26, 1868, p. 3; "Our Dead Heros," Ibid., May 31, 1868, p. 8; George William Douglas, The American Book of Days (New York: The H. S. Wilson Co., 1940), 229-230, 293-300; Mary R. Dearing, Veterans in Politics: The Story of the G.A.R. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1952), 176-179, 345; “Decoration Day,” Seattle Mail and Herald, May 25, 1901, p. 1; “Memorial Services Today,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 30, 1900, p. 10; Marjorie Ann Reeves, A Chapter in Pacific Northwest History (Seattle: Marjorie Ann Reeves, 2006); "Decoration Day," Seattle Mail and Herald, May 25, 1901, p. 1; "Spokane Honors Its Soldier Dead," The Spokesman Review, May 31, 1910, p. 7; "Memorial Day," Ibid., May 28, 1890, p. 5; "Decoration Day," Spokane Falls Weekly Review, May 29, 1886, p. 2; "Memorial Day," Spokane Evening Review, May 28, 1885, p. 1; "Custer Post GAR," Daily Tacoma News, May 28, 1884, p. 1; "National Decoration Day," Ibid., May 31, 1884, p. 1; Laws of Washington Territory Enacted 1887-8, Chapter LIX, p. 107; Sessions Laws of 1891, Washington State Legislature, Chapter XLI, "Legal Holidays," p. 80; David W. Blight, "Decoration Days: The Origins of Memorial Day in North and South," in The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture ed. by Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 94-129.

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