Memorial Day, it turns out, is yet another hijacked holiday. It was first observed in 1865 as Decoration Day by liberated slaves, who independently set up, decorated and proclaimed an ad-hoc graveyard – a field of "passionless mounds" – to honor dead Union soldiers.
Yale history professor David Blight tells the story in his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,
which traces the way in which the meaning and significance of the Civil
War was reshaped in the 50 years following it. For now, the original Memorial Day Order:
The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of
strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades
who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and
whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet
churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is
prescribed, but Posts and comrades will, in their own way arrange such
fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may
We are organized, Comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the
purpose among other things, "of preserving and strengthening those kind
and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers sailors
and Marines, who united to suppress the late rebellion." What can aid
more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of
our heroic dead? We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance.
All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to
their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of
her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of
reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of
time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have
forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.
If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold
in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and
warmth of life remain in us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred
remains, and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest
flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they
saved; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledge to aid and
assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon the
Nation's gratitude—the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.