PETERSBURG, Va. -- It’s a debate still simmering long after Civil War guns fell silent. Just where did Memorial Day originate? Several places, from Illinois and Virginia to Mississippi and Georgia, say they were the first.
“Well we do claim it right here in Petersburg,” says Gene Ross with the Petersburg’s Department of Tourism. Ross digs in his heels when it comes to the Memorial debate. Ross boasts the holiday’s roots stretch back to Blanford Cemetery in Petersburg in 1866.
“They began to decorate the graves of the men who fought in the battle of Fort Stedman. It was one of the last battles that took place in town,” says Ross.
Ross says Union General John Logan borrowed the idea from southerner Nora Fontaine Maury Davidson, who decorated the graves of the blue and gray. General Logan introduced Decoration Day in the late 1860s.
“They were putting flags and flowers down at these different gravesites,” says Ross. “That is what it was known as Decoration Day until it was changed to Memorial Day.”
Eventually, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York as the first place to hold Memorial Day ceremonies in the 1960s.
“We don’t believe it, though,” says Ross. “We say it started right here.”
Park Ranger Andie DeKoter says walking among the graves of the fallen from past wars stirs the soul.
“It represents sacrifice to me,” says DeKoter. “Absolutely. Death is an absolute truth.”
DeKoter says Memorial Day, no matter where it began, is a holiday we can all relate to.
“I think it is a time that we reflect on the sacrifices that were made so that we can have the freedoms that we have today.”
More than 25 places across the country lay claim to being the first place where a Memorial Day ceremony was held.
In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance which encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.