U.S. cities and towns rich in Memorial Day tradition

Memorial Day services at the cemetery at Fort Benning, in Columbus, Ga., one of many cities credited with starting the tradition.
(G. Marc Benavidez / KRT)

Memorial Day, also known as Decoration Day, didn’t become an official federal holiday until 1971. But the holiday’s ancestry can be traced to the Civil War, when various towns began decorating fallen soldiers’ gravesites.

The memorials were scattered, and the birthplace of the tradition is unclear. The Department of Veterans Affairs says dozens of towns now lay claim to being the primary source of the holiday. Here’s a look at several towns and cities with significant Memorial Day ties, past and present:

Waterloo, N.Y.

Waterloo first began honoring soldiers in 1866, several years after other locations. But Waterloo, 50 miles east of Rochester in upstate, went big, with flags and flowers draped all over town.

In 1966, the federal government declared it the birthplace of Decoration Day. These days, the town still goes big, with parades, fireworks, arts fests and re-enactments.


Info: Waterloo

Savannah, Ga.

The port city has ties to the holiday as well. In 1862, local women decorated soldiers’ graves, one of the earliest known tributes.

Today, the city about 280 miles north of Orlando, Fla., celebrates with the best of them. Check out the musket and cannon smoke at Ft. McAllister State Park, where reenactments go full force leading up to the holiday.

Info: Savannah


Gettysburg, Pa.

A flag bearer rides behind the Union line during a reenactment in Gettysburg, Pa.
(Paul Witt / Gettysburg Convention & Visitors )

What could resonate more than spending Memorial Day in this Civil War landmark just 85 miles northwest of Washington? The cemetery dedication here in 1863 was one of the first major remembrances of the war.

Poignant reminders of the cost of war abound in the Gettysburg National Military Park and the many museums. Monday, a parade will pass through the historic village where residents hid — and treated the wounded — as the battle raged.

Info: Gettysburg


Columbus, Ga.

“The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday in America,” a 2014 book, concluded that a group of women led by Mary Ann Williams in Columbus should get the credit.

Authors Richard Gardiner and Daniel Bellware linked the holiday to a group known as the Ladies Memorial Assn., who began a formal annual celebration in 1866 and spread word of the celebration through the South.

Today, the city of 200,000, about 105 miles southwest of Atlanta, honors the day with museum events and memorials at nearby Ft. Benning.

Info: Columbus, Ga.


Washington, D.C.

Rolling Thunder bikers group parade in Washington.
(Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images )

Many Americans don’t realize that a raid on Washington City was the Confederacy’s hail-Mary attempt that – like most Hail Marys – landed with a thud. The city has never claimed a direct Memorial Day ancestry. But it has seemed to own the holiday in the past few years, hosting one of the nation’s biggest celebrations. PBS stages a free concert Sunday night, and the nation’s largest parade will step off Monday.

Info: Washington, D.C.