Waterloo, New York is recognized by the federal government as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Other communities honored soldiers who lost their lives during the Civil War with their own memorial observances, but present day ceremonies are modeled after those first held in Waterloo in 1866. The National Memorial Day Museum has preserved the sequence of events through old photographs, newspaper articles and memorabilia of the post-war era and explores how the holiday has changed during its 148-year history.
Henry C. Welles was a well-respected, local druggist. He was at a social function during the summer of 1865 and told friends in addition to honoring the living veterans, he would like to place flowers on the graves of those who had lost their lives in the line of duty. Nothing materialized of his idea at that time.
In the spring of 1866, General John B. Murray returned to his home in Seneca Falls, NY where he had been a successful lawyer and politician before the war. He served as commander of the 148th Regiment of of New York State Volunteers during the war and was promoted to brigadier general. After his return, he was elected as clerk of Seneca County and moved to Waterloo to fulfill his duties.
When Welles told Murray of his idea, the former Civil War general was very supportive. Together, they formed a committee with a group of local citizens to gain support from the townspeople. As a result, the first Memorial Day observance took place May 5, 1866 in Waterloo, NY. Flags were at half mast and bands played marches as veterans and citizens walked to three local cemeteries to lay flowers on the graves. Memorial Day was celebrated the following year also on May 5.
The National Memorial Day Museum has preserved the state and national holiday history as well as the local area timeline. It was the next year, 1868, that General John Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Orders No. 11 for the purpose of honoring those who lost their lives while defending their country. He changed the date to May 30 and honored Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Waterloo and neighboring communities also moved their celebration to May 30 that same year.
New York State officially recognized the holiday in 1873 but it was not until March 7, 1966 that Nelson A. Rockefeller, governor of New York, signed a proclamation recognizing the significance of Waterloo in the Memorial Day history. That same year, House Concurrent Resolution 587 was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, May 17, and by the Senate on May 19. It acknowledged the tradition begun in Waterloo 100 years earlier and proclaimed “Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day.” President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a Presidential Proclamation, May 26, 1966.
The museum is in the William H. Burton house originally built in the 1830s and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. It features a Mourning Room set during the 19th-century time period with black cloth draped over the tops of windows, mirrors and fireplace mantles and a Civil War room with rifles, clothing and other artifacts. It is a short walk from the Cayuga-Seneca Canal which connects to the Erie Canal. The National Memorial Day Museum provides visitors with a carefully preserved holiday history that continues to influence the American people today.
By Cynthia Collins
National Memorial Day Museum – Schedule
Waterloo, NY – Birthplace of Memorial Day