History of Decoration Day
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 gravesites of local soldiers killed in the Civil War. This was before any formal holiday existed. Holding prayer ceremonies at gravesites 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 who would later be credited as the “Father of Memorial Day.”
But 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.
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-Decoration Day 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.
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.
General Logan’s declaration was likely inspired, at least initially, by a day in April 1866 near his hometown of Murphysboro, on the Illinois southern border. In Carbondale, he was joined by 212 veterans at Woodlawn Cemetery for a community-wide observance. Logan stirred the large crowd with his inspiring words. “Every man’s life belongs to his country, and no man has a right to refuse when his country calls for it,” he exalted.
The General’s words were held in high regard. Due to his bravery and steadfast loyalty to his men during battles, Logan was as popular a war hero in Illinois as President Grant. His presence was in demand, not only in honor, but in respect of those who sacrificed their lives. Several months after the cemetery event in Carbondale, on October 11, 1866, General Logan arrived in the state’s second largest city at the time, Peoria, Illinois for the dedication of the Civil War Monument at the courthouse square. There he witnessed firsthand the lengths a city would take to honor its fallen heroes. Bands played as a grand parade of citizens and soldiers traveled down Peoria’s downtown streets lined with onlookers, some hanging precariously from tree branches to get a better look. Logan, a physically imposing man, not in size, but in features, was easy to spot. Due to his slick, jet-black hair; thick, bushy mustache; and dark, focused eyes, his soldier’s affectionately called him “Black Jack.” General Grant called him his “best officer.” Astride his horse, Logan rode alongside his marching unit. “As the procession passed along Adams Street, the space each side was filled with people loudly cheering and manifesting the greatest joy,” the paper reported. “It moved down Adams Street, countermarched, and after marching about the principal streets disbanded into the square to listen to dedication exercises.”
Logan and other dignitaries, including military men and politicians, were scheduled to speak, but all were upstaged briefly by a veteran bald eagle named Old Abe, the “soldier bird” of Wisconsin’s Eighth Regiment, once led by General Logan. Riding a carriage, perched in front of the infantry marching companies, the majestic bird flapped its wings, and the crowds cheered their approval. Later, at the viewing stand, when the drapery was removed and the new statute unveiled, there was a likeness of Old Abe, cast in bronze sitting atop the stone shaft, a symbol of resolve and freedom, a fitting tribute to America’s war dead.
When it was Logan’s turn to speak, the general did not disappoint. Evoking a dying soldier’s last wishes, he passionately intoned, “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.”
Two years later, Logan’s wife, Mary traveled to war scarred Richmond, Virginia and visited a cemetery in nearby Petersburg. She was emotionally moved by what she observed. Her recollections were later published:
“The weather was balmy and spring-like and as we passed through the rows of graves I noticed that many of them had been strewn with beautiful blossoms and decorated with small flags of the dead Confederacy. The sentimental idea so enwrapped me that I inspected them more closely and discovered that they were everyone the graves of soldiers who had died for the Southern cause.”
The General could not go to Richmond. It was March 1868, and Logan now the leader of the Grand Army of the Republic was too busy in the nation’s capital overseeing veteran’s affairs to break away. But Charles Wilson, a newspaperman from Chicago, had invited the entire Logan family with him on the trip. So he insisted Logan’s wife Mary, daughter Dolly and Baby son, John Jr. still attend The general gave them his blessing.
In Richmond, Mary was prepared for the worst. Large portions of the city had been destroyed by fire after the North’s occupation. Now three years removed from the brutality of war, it still resembled a battleground. “Driving from place to place we were greatly interested and realized more than we ever could have, had we not visited the city immediately after the war, the horrors through which the people of the Confederacy had passed,” Mary recalled after arriving.
Because of its proximity to Washington, many Union leaders, including President Lincoln, toured Richmond shortly after the North captured the embattled Southern capital. Lincoln arrived with his son Tad on April 4, 1865 to a military-style artillery gun salute. He viewed first hand the devastation caused by the fires set by the escaping Rebels. The city’s structures were nearly gone, but the war was over. Five days later, General Robert E Lee signed surrender papers. Less than a week after that, Lincoln was dead.
But Richmond survived.
“The hotel we stayed in was in a very wretched condition,” Mary would later write about her trip. “And we expected to find the rebellion everywhere.” Wilson, another war veteran, was interested in seeing Libby prison, so they took a carriage to the site. Along the roads, Mary noticed “colored people” still picking up the remnants of exploded shrapnel, broken cannon and Minie balls to sell for iron scrap at local foundries.
The carriage then made its way to the cemeteries. This is where Mary took pause. Not only were there endless lines of stones, but they were all decorated. “In the churchyard we saw hundreds of graves of Confederate soldiers. These graves had upon them bleached Confederate flags and faded flowers and wreaths that had been laid upon by loving hands,” she wrote. “I had never been so touched by what I had seen.”
When she returned to Washington, Mary summoned her husband and told him what she had witnessed at the grave sites. Logan said that it was a beautiful revival of a custom of the ancients preserving the memory of the dead. “Within my power,” he promised her, “I will see that the tradition is carried out for Union soldier as well.”
A promise he did not wait long to keep.
Almost immediately, Logan sent a letter to the adjunct- general of the Grand Army of the Republic, dictating an order for the first decoration of the graves of Union soldiers. He wrote: “The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
On May 30 1868, just as Logan had ordered, the first Memorial Day service (then known as “Decoration Day”) took place at Arlington Cemetery.
Logan had given a directive how to proceed:
“Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude, — the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.”
Across the Potomac at the site of the Arlington Mansion, once the home of General Robert E. Lee, bands played and General James Garfield, a future president, spoke. General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife were also there.
After Garfield’s lengthy speech—which lasted nearly two hours – war veterans, some still limping from their battle injuries, were led by schoolchildren from the Soldiers and Sailors orphan home to the cemetery grounds where they placed flowers on every gravesite of both Union and Confederate soldiers. It was a sign of unity in a still-fractured nation.
Although no one could predict the weather, the first Memorial Day turned out to be sunny and quite warm, a perfect start to the summer season. Mary Logan says that her husband picked the end of May because “[Spring] flowers would be in their greatest perfection.” Baskets of brilliantly colored bouquets enriched by the heat of the sun’s heat were spread out throughout the national cemetery grounds.
“It was a beautiful day,” Mary Logan remarked.
This entry was posted in History and tagged Blackjack Logan, Carbondale Illinois Memorial Day, Charleston South Carolina Decoration Day, Friendship Cemetary, General John A. Logan, History of Decoration Day, History of Memorial Day, James Redpath May Day 1865, Mary Logan, May 30 198 first Memorial Day, Miss Matt Moreton, New York Memorial Day, The Blue and the Gray Francis Miles Finch, Waterloo.