New York State: Birthplace of Memorial Day
When the Civil War ended, New York units had suffered greater losses than those of any other state, North or South. Henry Welles, a prominent pharmacist in Waterloo, New York, organized a community commemoration to honor their sacrifice in May of 1866. Veterans, soldiers’ family members and other citizens gathered to decorate the gravestones of soldiers and held a parade to memorialize the men who had died. Soon, Waterloo’s “Decoration Day” in May began spreading to other communities across the North and in 1868, General John Logan, head of the Union Army veterans’ group, the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed May 30th a day of commemoration for the Union soldiers who had died. In 1873, New York became the first state in the Union to officially recognize “Decoration Day” as a holiday. By 1889, “Decoration Day” had become “Memorial Day” and May 30th was officially recognized as a national holiday.

From a Local Holiday to a National Memorial Day
In September of 1867, the Atlantic Monthly published a poem entitled, “The Blue and the Gray.” It was written by an Associate Judge of New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, Francis Miles Finch. Finch traveled in the South after the Civil War and observed the devastation and loss of life Southern communities had endured as a result of the Civil War. This inspired his poem, which reflected on the collective sense of loss felt throughout the recently reunified nation.

Finch’s poem paved the way for a national movement, which lobbied for a single day of recognition for the soldiers who had died on both sides during the Civil War. When John Logan proclaimed May 30th as a day of remembrance in the North, Southern communities began to follow suit. In 1889, Congress formalized Memorial Day’s celebration on May 30th, which lasted until 1971, when the holiday’s observance was moved from a specific date to the last Monday in May.



Hunt Block Decorated for Memorial Day, 1890

The Hunt Building, located on Main Street in Waterloo, is decorated as part of the town’s Memorial Day Celebration.

Photo courtesy of the National Memorial Day Museum in Waterloo, NY

Logan Straight On

Major General John Logan, dressed in his Union Army uniform, was head of the Grand Army of the Republic, the national Union Army Veterans’ Association.

Photo courtesy of the National Memorial Day Museum in Waterloo, NY

Murray, General J.B. Father of Memorial Day

General J.B. Murray, an Army veteran, was co-chair of the Waterloo Citizens Commission that planned the Decoration Day events. He led the first parade down Main Street.

Photo courtesy of the National Memorial Day Museum in Waterloo, NY

Parade Main Street 1868

Members of the Grand Army of the Republic gather in formation for Waterloo’s Decoration Day parade in 1868.

Photo courtesy of the National Memorial Day Museum in Waterloo, NY

President Johnson Stratton 1966

President Lyndon Johnson shaking hands with Congressman Samuel Stratton after signing the Proclamation declaring Waterloo, NY the birthplace of Memorial Day.

Photo courtesy of the National Memorial Day Museum in Waterloo, NY

Seneca County Clerks Building

This photo from the 1860’s shows the Seneca County Clerk Building decorated for Decoration Day.

Photo courtesy of the National Memorial Day Museum in Waterloo, NY

Welles HC Portrait light

Henry Welles was a pharmacist in Waterloo who conceived and helped organize the first Decoration Day. His work helped give birth to today’s Memorial Day.

Photo courtesy of the National Memorial Day Museum in Waterloo, NY

Prayer for Peace, Memorial Day 1966 Proclamation

The 1966 proclamation issued by President Lyndon Johnson declaring Waterloo, NY the official birthplace of Memorial Day.

Photo courtesy of the National Memorial Day Museum in Waterloo, NY

Mills Memorial and Decoration Day Programme
The monument pictured on the first page of this four-page program was erected in Albany Rural Cemetery in 1883 by New York State in memory of Col. John Mills, founder of the Albany Republican Artillery, 1809. Mills was killed at Sacketts Harbor, May 20, 1813. His remains were exhumed from Capitol Park and removed to the cemetery, where the monument was dedicated on May 30, 1883.


The program is filled with ads from local businesses, including an ad for Ottawa Root Beer!

The dedication of this monument to a War of 1812 soldier on a day initially created to honor soldiers killed in the Civil War is just one example of how the day has evolved over the years.

New York State Library

Decoration Day at LaFargeville, N.Y.

By the late 1890s and early 1900s, the decoration of soldiers’ graves more and more was becoming an adjunct to the day’s events. In this poster advertising Decoration Day at La Fargeville, a hamlet in the Town of Orleans (Jefferson County), in 1902, the size of the type indicates a handkerchief bazaar, a baseball game and the unveiling of a monument by the Foresters, a fraternal organization, were better selling points than the decoration of the graves.


New York State Library

Logan, John Alexander

Oration of General John A. Logan: Delivered Upon the Occasion of the Decoration of Union Soldiers' Graves, at the National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., on Memorial Day, May 30, 1870.


New York State Library

After the War Is Over: Will There Be Any Home Sweet Home?

Music by Joseph Woodruff. Words by E.J. Pourmon.
(New York: Joe Morris Music Col., 1917)

Cover: Dead men and cannon in foreground; woman sitting by open fire and holding two children close in background.


New York State Library

Your Dad Gave His Life for His Country

Geary, T. Mayo.: Your Dad Gave His Life for His Country. Music by T. Mayo Geary. Words by Harry J. Breen.


New York State Library

I’ll Be Home for Christmas (If Only in My Dreams)

Words and music by Kim Gannon, Walter Kent, Buck Ram
(Hollywood, California: Charles Warren, 1943)


New York State Library

Editorial Cartoon

Editorial cartoon drawn by Hy Rosen and published in the Albany Times Union to mark Memorial Day 1963.
Note: the juxtaposition of the World War II rifle and helmet, which dominates the cartoon, with the rockets and space capsules that had been dominating the news from April 12, 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to journey into outer space.

New York State Library

America Here’s My Boy

Music by Arthur Lange. Words by Andrew B. Sterling.(New York: Joe Morris Music Co., 1917

Cover: Map of the United States in the background; in foreground is a man dressed in a World War I military uniform; next to him stands his mother with her arms positioned as if offering her son to her country.

At head of title: The Sentiment of Every American Mother.

New York State Library

Gold Star Album

Gold Star Album 1917-1918: An Alsace-Lorraine Memorial Dedicated to the Mothers of the American Soldiers Who Fought and Died on the Soil of France. ([New York?]: Charles Blumenthal, 1928)


New York State Library

The Volunteer Soldier of America

The Volunteer Soldier of America by John A. Logan: With Memoir of the Author and Military Reminiscences from General Logan’s Private Journal (Chicago: R.S. Peale & Company, 1887)

General John A. Logan, in his capacity as national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in General Order No. 11 on May 5, 1868, officially proclaimed that on May 30, 1868, members of the G.A.R. should “decorat[e] the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”

Opposite the title page is a full-color collage of “military uniforms of all American wars.” The two pages after the title page are black-and-white images of (1) the Medal of Honor and (2) two little girls in a cemetery. The text on the latter image: To the immortal host of citizen-soldiers and sailors, who, from Lexington to Appomattox, have won the liberty of the Republic, maintained its honor and preserved its integrity, this volume is affectionately inscribed by an humble companion-in-arms.

New York State Library

Postcards of four Civil War monuments that were dedicated on Memorial Day

Kings County (Brooklyn): Gen. Henry Slocum equestrian monument – dedicated May 30, 1905


St. Lawrence County (Gouverneur) – dedicated May 30, 1900.

Westchester County (Mount Vernon) – dedicated May 30, 1891 and May 30, 1895.

Yates County (Penn Yan) – dedicated May 30, 1898.



New York State Library

Judge Francis Miles Finch

Judge Francis Miles Finch, an Associate Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals and author of the poem, “The Blue and they Grey.”


Portrait courtesy of the New York State Court of Appeals

Privacy Policy | Accessibility | Contact