Civil War Veteran, Pennsylvania, 1935
Memorial Day is not a 20th-century tradition. Its beginning dates back to the Civil War; the first observance was on May 30, 1868. Originally conceived as Decoration Day—meant for bedecking the burial sites of fallen soldiers—flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
But the Civil War proved divisive long after the last drop of blood was shed. By 1890 all of the northern states celebrated the holiday at the end of May, but southerners honored their dead on different dates until after World War I—when the holiday lost its connection to Civil War soldiers only and became a way to honor all military lives lost.
Today, most U.S. states celebrate Memorial Day on the last Monday in May. Yet several southern states still maintain an additional day for feting Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas; April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee.
The Civil War veteran above wears the cap of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)—the largest Union veterans' organization—founded in 1866. The number on his cap signals that his post was 139, located in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
This prize-winning amateur photograph from the 1935 Newspaper National Snapshot Awards was taken by Mrs. Nathan Klein of Wyoming, Pennsylvania. The note on the back reads: "Old soldier talking to bootblacks."
Many Civil War veterans were long-lived. Some 1,800 attended the 75th reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1938. Their average age was about 95. According to the National Civil War Museum, Albert H. Woolson of Minnesota—the last documented Civil War soldier—died in 1956.
Picture Archive: American Soldiers, 1860s to 1940s
As Americans celebrate Memorial Day, we look back at soldiers in action.