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Notes from the Archives: Memorial Day in Boston

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On May 30, 1868, Americans observed the country’s first Memorial Day.

After the Civil War, local veterans organizations in both the North and South began decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. In 1868, General John Logan, of the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans organization of the Union Army, called for a national “Decoration Day,” dedicated to honoring and commemorating deceased soldiers. May 30 was chosen because flowers were in bloom, making it easy to decorate soldiers’ graves.

Grand Army of the Republic directory, 1892.

Veterans organizations were an important part of American cultural and political life following the Civil War.  Over 3 million men enlisted and fought in the Civil War. Veterans organizations provided emotional support and camaraderie for veterans, and advocated for legislation and policies such as soldier’s pensions.  In Massachusetts, veterans of the Union Army joined the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which had posts in almost every Massachusetts town. You can see sample pages from the 1892 directory of the GAR above.

In Boston, the GAR took the lead in organizing Memorial Day activities. At the City Archives, our files about Memorial Day document the GAR’s heavy involvement in organizing Memorial Day commemorations. The below 1889 letter, for example, invited Boston’s Mayor and City Council to Memorial Day commemorations at Forest Hills Cemetery and the Thomas Stevenson Post.

Correspondence regarding Memorial Day, 1889

Though the GAR took the lead in preparing Memorial Day activities, many different Bostonians were involved in planning Boston's commemorations. This schedule of events from two years later, in 1891, shows a wide variety of Boston's civic and religious organizations participating in Memorial Day observances. 

Memorial Day program, 1891.

The GAR formally dissolved in 1956, when its last member died. However, Boston continued to carry on the Memorial Day commemorations that the GAR had lead for so many years. These photos from the 1960s show Mayor John Collins participating in Memorial Day ceremonies.

Mayor John Collins at Memorial Day exercises, 1963
Mayor John Collins at Memorial Day Exercises, 1960.

This year, as we keep our city safe by observing social distancing, Bostonians can support and honor our veterans by signing up for the Veterans Services PenPals and Buddies Program. Boston's Office of Veterans Services is pairing people or families (buddies) with local veterans. Want to volunteer as a penpal buddy? Do you know a local veteran who would like a buddy? Visit the PenPals and Buddies page to become a buddy, or to sign up a veteran for the program.