Claiming Memorial Day: Honoring the Fallen Before the Holiday

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By Ken Zurski

The idea to recognize the war dead with a day of commemoration can be attributed to dozens of communities that organized events adorning the grave sites of local soldiers killed in the Civil War. This was before any formal holiday existed. Holding prayer ceremonies at grave sites and placing flowers on graves was not an original concept, but beyond the church groups, large turnouts of people of all faiths and races, whether churchgoers or not, were gaining momentum and support, stirred by both the size and scope of the costly war. Nearly every town in America had buried dead from the horror of the Civil War and nearly every town had a cemetery as a reminder of the terrible loss.

Carbondale, Illinois home of one of the earliest infantry regiments in that state, has a stone marker that recognizes it as the first site of a Decoration Day ceremony, although it too was held several years before the holiday was officially enacted. Their reasoning is valid thanks to the stirring words of a hometown General, John A. Logan, who would later be credited as the “Father of Memorial Day.” “Tell my wife, tell my sister, mother, that I died with my face to the enemy; that my country might live; that the principles of liberty and freedom might be enjoyed; and that they might be protected by the laws and Constitution.”

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General John A. Logan

But like Carbondale, other cities also claimed the distinction.

Columbus, Mississippi, was one town that buried many. After the bloody Battle of Shiloh, many of the wounded and war dead were sent by train to the small Southern town just above the Tombigbee River. Thousands of soldiers on both sides of the battle were interred at the hopefully named Friendship Cemetery. In April of 1866, several Columbus women went to the cemetery and brought bouquets of garland, blossoms, lilies and roses to the site.  Miss Matt Moreton was among the gatherers. One by one, she and the other women placed flowers on the graves of over a thousand Confederate souls. Miss Moreton showing no partiality, did the same for the federal’s soldiers grave sites as well. “This first act of floral reconciliation was discussed in praise and censure,” a local described. “[But] this sweet woman with whom God has blessed the earth – volunteered, of her own mind, to strew flowers upon the Federal’s graves too. not just upon the fallen Confederates.”

The Mississippi Index praised the event:

“We were glad to see that no distinction was made between our own dead and about forty Federal soldiers, who slept their last sleep by them. It proved the exalted, unselfish tone of the female character. Confederate and Federal—once enemies, now friends—receiving this tribute of respect.”

Miss Moreton was a recent widow. Her husband was a victim of the war.

The act prompted Francis Miles Finch to write a poem, famously titled The Blue and the Gray.

…From the silence of sorrowful hours

The desolate mourners go,

Lovingly laden with flowers

Alike for the friend and the foe;

Under the sod and the dew, Waiting the judgement-day;

Under the roses, the Blue,

Under the lilies, the Gray.

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The Columbus Women

Moreton and three other local women were given credit for the kind gesture, and their story is remembered today in Columbus, where Memorial Day services are still carried out in the same manner.

The New York town of Waterloo, built along the banks of the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, holds the official distinction of being the “birthplace of Memorial Day,” thanks to a presidential proclamation signed by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. The effort was originally spearheaded by the governor of New York at the time, Nelson D. Rockefeller, who recognized Waterloo as the first village-wide, annual observance of a day to honor the war dead. The local resolution was inspiring enough to be taken up by Congress, passed by the House and Senate, and sent to the President for approval. Here’s Waterloo’s story: 100 years earlier, in the summer of 1866, Henry Welles, a druggist, suggested a day of social gathering not only to honor the living soldiers but remember the fallen ones too. General John B. Murray supported the idea and instituted a plan. It was more like a funeral procession. Flags were flown at half-staff and black bunting was hung in respect as soldiers and townsfolk marched to three village cemeteries and placed flowers on the gravesites. The next year, in similar fashion, they did it again, and again the following year, and in each year since.

Perhaps the largest and earliest pre-holiday ceremony was held in Charleston, South Carolina, in a large field known as the Race Course, where prized horses once ran. During the Civil War, the infield was used as a prisoner-of-war camp. Hundreds of mostly young men were either held there or awaited transfer to larger prison camps, like Belle Isle in Richmond or Andersonville in Georgia. Many never made it out of the Race Course, suffering from sicknesses like dysentery, which spread quickly in the inhumane conditions and tight quarters. Some 257 men perished and were quickly buried in a pasture nearby.

In May of 1865, just a year after the war ended, several Charleston residents, went out to see the gravesites, just mounds of dirt really, and still fresh, noted one observer, “with the marks of the hoofs of cattle and horses and feet of men.” They decided to erect a fence and place a monument on the site.

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May Day Ceremonies in Charleston

Then, on May 1, 1865, May Day, nearly 3,000 local schoolchildren and “double that the number of grown-ups” went to the Washington Race Course with bouquets of roses and other “sweet smelling flowers.” James Redpath, known as “Uncle James,” a witness, remembered the event. “The children marched from the Race Course singing the John Brown Song and then, silently and reverently, and with heads uncovered, they entered the burial ground and covered the graves with flowers. “It was the first free May Day gathering they ever enjoyed,” Redpath noted, referring to the colored children present and their parents, former slaves.

Three years later, on May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan of the Union Veterans—the Grand Army of the Republic—established a day for all Americans to decorate with flowers the graves of war heroes.

On May 30 1868, just as Logan had ordered, the first Memorial Day service (then known as “Decoration Day”) took place at Arlington Cemetery.

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