National Archives News

Memorial Day: A Commemoration

The tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery are decorated with the U.S. flag on Memorial Day 1985 NAID 6393199

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. The Catalog also contains a number of entries for national cemeteries, including 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.

The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home Patrick O'Donnell discusses the creation of the Tomb, the selection of the body to represent the thousands of unidentified American soldiers lost in WWI, and the moving ceremony during which the Tomb was consecrated. (June 8, 2018)

"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? (November 15, 2015)

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.

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

Memorial Services at Arlington National Cemetery (1920)
Boy Scouts and veterans of past wars decorate graves. Addresses are made in the old amphitheater and the new amphitheater is dedicated. Veterans and soldiers decorate graves and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

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.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library: 1963 Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery (photos)

Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library: 1963 Memorial Day speech as Vice President at Gettysburg, PA, that foreshadowed the Civil Rights Act

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library: Proclamations (1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988) and Remarks at Arlington Cemetery (1982, 1984, 1986

George H.W. Bush Presidential Library: 1989 Proclamation and Remarks (1989, 1990, 1992)

George W. Bush Presidential Library: Proclamations (2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008) and 2007 Remarks

Barack Obama Library: Presidential Proclamations and Remarks at Arlington Cemetery