• Presidio
    • Blog
      • Then + Now: 150 Years of Memorial Day in the Presidio

Then + Now: 150 Years of Memorial Day in the Presidio

Wednesday, May 16, 2018 Category History

Learn more about the 150th Anniversary Memorial Day Commemoration at the Presidio on Monday, May 28 >>

The year 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the Memorial Day commemoration in San Francisco and the Presidio's participation in this event.

Memorial Day has its origins in the trauma of the Civil War. The war ended in 1865 and three years later the largest organization of Union Veterans – the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) – called for a day for memorial services in cemeteries across the nation to commemorate the sacrifice of their fellow soldiers who died fighting to preserve the United States of America. The holiday was originally called Decoration Day due to the custom of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers.  

Though California was remote from the Civil War's major scenes of struggle, Californians still felt the impact of that war and San Francisco immediately embraced the holiday. During the Civil War, more than 17,000 Californians fought in the Union Army, and about 600 of these soldiers lost their lives. The local chapter of the GAR organized the first commemoration of Memorial Day in San Francisco in 1868. On that day, the band of the Second U.S. Artillery Regiment from the Presidio of San Francisco led a parade from downtown San Francisco to Lone Mountain Cemetery, beginning the long tradition of the Presidio's participation in this solemn event. Memorial Day has changed over the years and is now the day set aside for the remembrance of all the men and women who died while fighting in service of the armed forces of the United States of America.

Learn more about 150 years of Memorial Day ceremonies in San Francisco. 


Battalion Drill Companies Passing in Review, Decoration Day – May 30, 1883

Battalion Drill Companies Passing in Review, Decoration Day – May 30, 1883

Then: For most of the first twenty-five years of San Francisco's Memorial Day observances, the main activities were focused at Odd Fellows' Cemetery, just south of the Presidio Army post. The earliest record we have of the decoration of graves in the Presidio is from 1870 when Army men lay flowers there. In later years, women living at the Presidio would perform this service.

California made Decoration Day a legal holiday in 1880. This photo shows soldiers doing drills near Odd Fellows’ Cemetery as part of the ceremonies in 1883, one year before the establishment of the San Francisco National Cemetery at the Presidio. That year, the Artillery from the Presidio fired minute guns during the flower placing at Odd Fellows’ Cemetery.

Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center


Memorial Day Program Cover – May 30, 1893

Memorial Day Program Cover – May 30, 1893

Then: In 1892, the GAR’s George H. Thomas Post, No.2, acquired a plat in the San Francisco National Cemetery for the interment of its members and their families. It dedicated a monument there on Memorial Day in 1893 to those who died in the Civil War. That year was the first time a large public Memorial Day ceremony with thousands of people in attendance was held in the Presidio. By this time, it had become the custom to place flowers on all the graves at National Cemetery, not just the graves of those who died in the Civil War. Young women from the California State Normal School and San Francisco Girls' High School led the decoration of the graves.

Photo courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers


Volunteers from the Spanish American War – May 30, 1898

Volunteers from the Spanish American War – May 30, 1898

Then: After 1893, the GAR continued to hold ceremonies at both San Francisco National Cemetery and Odd Fellows' Cemetery. The day took on new significance in 1898 when the United States entered its first major conflict since the Civil War – the Spanish American War. This photo shows some of the Presidio soldiers who volunteered for service that year marching in a parade down Van Ness Avenue. Veterans of that war became active in organizing later Memorial Day observances. After World War I ended in 1918, the holiday was understood to commemorate the dead from all of the United States' wars.

Photo by Alice Burr, courtesy of the California Historical Society


Decoration Day GAR Parade in the Presidio – May 20, 1924

Decoration Day GAR Parade in the Presidio – May 20, 1924

Then: By Memorial Day 1924, the city's official ceremonies were held at San Francisco National Cemetery. This photo's caption reads, "Only a few of them left. Decoration Day GAR Parade." Though the number of Civil War veterans was much reduced, this photo shows them marching down Montgomery Street in the Presidio, decorated with medals and wearing their slouch hats with military cords and tassels. Services that year included an air squadron from Crissy Field dropping flowers over the graves at San Francisco National Cemetery.

Photo courtesy of the California State Library


The American Legion’s Junior Auxiliary Decorating Graves – May 29, 1940

The American Legion’s Junior Auxiliary Decorating Graves – May 29, 1940

Then: In May 1940, World War II in Europe and steady rain provided an ominous backdrop to Memorial Day. This photo from the day before Memorial Day shows Thelma Newnham and Dale Parker of the American Legion's Junior Auxiliary decorating graves in San Francisco National Cemetery. In 1944, Civil War veteran Samuel R. Yoho, the last living member of the GAR's George H. Thomas Post, participated in Memorial Day activities at the Presidio for the final time. He died in 1945 and is now buried in San Francisco National Cemetery. The year 1949 would be the first that no Civil War veterans participated in any Memorial Day observance in California.

Photo courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley


The 100th Anniversary Memorial Day – May 30, 1968

Army military police escort

Then: Through the years, the U.S. Army at the Presidio continued to host the city’s official commemoration ceremony. This photo shows an Army military police escort at the head of the San Francisco Mayor’s Memorial Day Parade on the Main Parade Ground in 1968. Three years later, Memorial Day was made a federal holiday and moved to the last Monday in May.

Photo courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

The Tradition Continues in the Presidio – May 29, 2017

Memorial Day in the Presidio
Now: In 1994 the U.S. Army departed and the Presidio joined the national park system. Yet the Presidio remains the site of a major Memorial Day commemoration attended by thousands of people each year. The event acknowledges the Presidio's legacy as an American military installation and honors all those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. It is hosted by the Presidio Trust, The City of San Francisco and the Veterans Administration.  ​

Join us for Memorial Day 2018

This year's 150th Anniversary Memorial Day Commemoration takes place Monday, May 28, 2018 and honors the one million Americans who've died while serving in the United States armed forces, and the remarkable commitment and sacrifices made by active duty military personnel and veterans. The ceremony will include:

  • A special flag raising ceremony at Pershing Square, 9:30 am
  • Parade with Veterans and the South San Francisco High School Marching Band, 10:30 am – Beginning at Presidio Officers' Club (50 Moraga Avenue)
  • Formal Ceremony with Military Dignitaries, Veteran Speakers, and Live Music, 11 am to Noon – San Francisco National Cemetery at the Presidio
  • Speakers include: decorated veteran and historian Phil Gioia, Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, General Michael Myatt, and San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell.
  • Matthew Smith, President of the University of California, Berkeley Veterans Group will provide reflections on contemporary challenges faced by post 9/11 veterans.
  • The Gold Star Family of Air Force Major Adrianna Vorderbruggen will lay a wreath in her honor. Adrianna was killed in Afghanistan in 2015 while leading a security patrol.
  • Music for the ceremony is provided by The Golden West Winds from the U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West, Travis Air Force Base, California. The ceremony will conclude with a fly-over by the U.S. Coastguard, U.S. Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco.
  • 21-Gun Salute by the U.S. Army's Pacific Division 75th Training Command, Noon – Pershing Square, Main Post
  • Community Picnic Gathering, 12 to 2 pm, Main Parade Ground – Food for purchase, opportunities for community service, and activities for children.