National Archives News

Memorial Day: A Commemoration

The tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery are decorated with the U.S. flag on Memorial Day

Memorial Day, initially referred to as Decoration Day, was observed by many communities after the Civil War, when the nation suffered more than 620,000 military deaths, roughly 2 percent of the total population at the time. John A. Logan, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of Republic, chose May 30, 1868, as a day to decorate the graves of Union troops across the nation. From this beginning, Memorial Day is now designated as an annual day of remembrance to honor all those who have died in service to the United States during peace and war.  Veterans Day, November 11, celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.


Armistice Day, 1922The National Archives holds a wealth of material documenting Memorial Day and honoring those who have served in all branches of the United States military. The National Archives Catalog contains records relating to this holiday and to military service as well as photographs of Presidential wreath-laying ceremonies.

A recent addition to the Catalog is a series of blueprints called Initial Burial Plats for World War I American Soldiers.


The Nation’s Sacrifice: The Origins and Evolution of Memorial Day

Memorial Day began as a way to honor those who died in the Civil War and has become a day to honor all American veterans who gave their lives in sacrifice to our nation. Learn more about its history in the Pieces of History blog from the National Archives History Office.



Archivist Rod Ross remembers the founder of Memorial Day, John A. Logan, whose 1868 proclamation led to today’s holiday. He also traces his own connection to a Civil War memorial in his home town of Batavia, IL, through his work as an archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

"In Honor of our Veterans: Caring for Our Heroes"—a panel discusses these questions: "What has Congress done to aid active service members, veterans, and their families? What lessons can we learn from how veterans from previous conflicts were supported upon their return? What challenges do we face as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to take their toll?

Universal News Volume 17, Release 300, Reels 1 & 2 of 2. June 6, 1944. Eve of Battle tells the story of the preparation for the Normandy invasion through motion pictures produced by service film units of the Allied Expeditionary Forces.

Holiday Celebrations at G.H.Q., Chaumont, 1918-1919. Services at a Chaumont cemetery, Memorial Day, 1918. Gens. Pershing and McAndrew review a parade on July 4, 1918.  Allied officers review a French-U.S. parade on July 14, 1918. Graves are decorated at Chaumont on Memorial Day, 1919.

A Special Day (Veterans Day 1963). A film record of the Veterans Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery on November 11, 1963. In one of his last official acts on behalf of veterans before his assassination 11 days later, President John F. Kennedy placed a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknowns.

President Calvin Coolidge attends the Grant Memorial dedication, reviews parades, and attends Memorial Day services at Arlington National Cemetery.

Prologue Magazine

"Honoring Our War Dead: The Evolution of the Government Policy on Headstones for Fallen Soldiers and Sailors" (Spring 2003)

"World War I Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages" (Summer 1999)

Presidential Libraries

Memorial Day Programs at Presidential Libraries Nationwide

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library: Memorial Day party at Press Secretary Pierre Salinger's home

Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library: On Memorial Day 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech in Gettysburg, PA, that foreshadowed the Civil Rights Act .

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library: Remarks at Memorial Day ceremonies honoring an Unknown Serviceman of the Vietnam Conflict

George W. Bush Presidential Library: President Bush commemorates Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery