Although the exact origins of Memorial Day are disputed, the first observance of Memorial Day is thought to have taken place in April 1865, when a group of former slaves gathered at a Charleston, SC horse track turned Confederate prison where more than 250 Union soldiers had died. The bodies of soldiers buried in a mass grave were reinterred in individual graves on the site. On May 1, 1865, some 10,000 black Charleston residents, white missionaries, teachers, schoolchildren and Union troops marched around the Planters’ Race Course, singing and carrying armfuls of roses.
In 1868, Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic—an organization of former soldiers and sailors—issued what was called General Order Number 11, designating May 30 as a Memorial Day. He declared it to be “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.”
The first national celebration of Memorial Day (originally Decoration Day) took place May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery. The national observance of Memorial Day still takes place there today, with the placing of a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the decoration of each grave with a small American flag.
On May 11, 1950, Congress issued a joint resolution requesting that the president proclaim a “Prayer for Peace” on each Memorial Day. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a federal holiday to be held on the last Monday of every May. On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember the fallen, and honor all who have served our country, as we unite in prayer for permanent peace in the world.
O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share in the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
O God, we ask your strength, that we might dedicate ourselves to perfecting your kingdom of peace and justice among nations. Let us give thanks for the many blessings of freedom which we possess, purchased at the cost of many lives and sacrifices. Fill us with courage to fulfill our tasks and in no way break faith with the fallen. We commend these fallen to your mercy and ask that you give them eternal rest. This we ask and pray in your name.
O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered, draw near to all who mourn the loss of those near and dear to them. In the midst of their deep sorrow grant them the comfort of your presence. Give them faith to feel the calm assurance of your mercy and to know the blessing of your peace that passes all understanding. In your most holy name we pray.