Illinois history

CLAIMING MEMORIAL DAY: Honoring the Fallen Before the Holiday

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By Ken Zurski

Before any formal holiday existed, 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.

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 for their act of of kindness and reverence. 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.”

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

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.

The Columbus Women

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

A century later, in 1966, thanks to a presidential proclamation signed by Lyndon B. Johnson, 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.”

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 as well. 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 gravesides. 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.

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.



What’s That Bird? Father Marquette Mentioned Parrots and Bustards in Illinois.

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By Ken Zurski

Father Jacques Marquette

In 1674, while exploring the Illinois River for the first time, French Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette wrote in his journal: “We have seen nothing like this river that we enter, as regards its fertility of soil, its prairies and woods; its cattle, elk, deer, wildcats, bustards, swans, ducks, parroquets, and even beaver.”

Certainly the reference to parroquets, or perroquets, (French for parrot) raises some eyebrows. But a species called the Carolina Parrot, now extinct, did inhabit portions of North America, as far north as the Great Lakes, as early as the 16th century.

More puzzling, however, is the mention of the bustard.

Even the Illinois State Museum in the state’s capitol of Springfield questions this unusual reference.

What is a Bustard?” the Museum sign asks in an exhibit showcasing birds native to Illinois, then answers: “We’re not sure.”

Of course, the bustard is a real bird. In Europe and Central Asia it is more commonly known. In North America? It just doesn’t exist. But did it at one time? According to the Museum’s notes, several French explorers described bustards as being common game birds of Illinois and said they resembled “large ducks.”

Large indeed.

A Great Bustard can stand 2 to 3 feet in height and weigh up to 30 pounds making it one of the heaviest living animals able to fly. Its one distinctive feature, besides its size, is the gray whiskers that sprouts from its beak in the winter.

Great Bustard

Father Marquette was more a man of the cloth than a scientist. His mission was to preach to the Illinois Indians or “savages” as he calls them. Along the way, however, he described the scenery and game in detail. The “bustard” comes up quite often in his journal. He even refers to hunting them, possibly eating them too. “Bustards and ducks pass continually,” he wrote.

Perhaps, as some suggest, Marquette was describing a common wild turkey. His recollections seem to imply they were airborne, which wild turkeys can do, despite the myth that they cannot fly (the “fattened” farm turkey – the one we use for Thanksgiving – does not fly).

The Illinois State Museum goes even further by speculating that the bird Marquette was referencing was not a bustard at all, but the Canada Goose which is similar in size and appearance to the Great Bustard.

But, as the Museum concedes,  even that is “open to question.”.

Image result for canada goose bird
Canada Goose

Two Trains, One Track: The Great Train Wreck of 1918

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By Ken Zurski water1

On July 9, 1918, near Nashville, Tennessee, in an area known as Dutchman’s curve, two trains collided head-on creating such a frightful noise that many claimed it could be “heard for miles.”

It was 7:00 on a warm summer morning and both trains on the Nashville, Chattanooga & St Louis line were running late.

The westbound or outbound passenger train to Memphis had just pulled out of Nashville’s Union Station packed with passengers. The eastbound train was heading inbound to the Nashville station from Memphis. Both veteran engineers had orders. The inbound train had the right of way on the curve’s one-way track. The outbound train would have to wait at the double-tracks just outside of the station for the other train to pass. But something went horribly wrong. A green light was given to the outbound train to proceed, meaning someone had seen or heard the incoming train pass. But when the tower operator checked his papers, there was no record of the Nashville-bound train coming through.

In reality, the inbound train was running nearly 35 minutes behind schedule.

The operator frantically telegraphed the dispatcher who immediately sent an urgent message back. “Stop him” was his order. But how?  At the time, there was no direct communication with the engineers in either train. Only a warning whistle was used for emergencies. The whistle blared, but the outbound train was too far along for anyone to hear it. By this time, the inbound train was chugging to the curve.

Both trains were moving at top speeds of 60 mph. Then a moment of sheer terror. The engineer of the outbound train caught a glimpse of the other train coming around the bend, directly in his path. He pulled the emergency brake, but there wasn’t enough time. Then that sound that could be heard for miles. “The ground quaked and the waters of nearby Richland Creek trembled,” one writer later described. “The wooden cars crumbled and hurled sideways, hanging over the embankment.  One train telescoped the other.”

In all, 101 people were killed, mostly traveling soldiers and African-American laborers from Tennessee and Arkansas. Many were leaving or returning to work at a munitions plant in the Nashville area.

Besides what went wrong, there was more scrutiny.

After only a few days of front page news, the press was accused of being mostly dismissive. Perhaps it was due to the number of war stories that filled the papers at the time.  But some believe the wreck itself, while tragic, just wasn’t exploitative enough. Most of the dead were minority migrants and laborers. Many were killed beyond recognition. Basically, it just wasn’t as easily sensationalized as other disasters at the time, like the wrecks involving circus trains…or the fate of a fun-filled chartered steamboat.

Four days before the Nashville train wreck another tragedy hit the papers that shook a nation. On July 5, a wooden steamboat named the Columbia collapsed and sank in middle of the Illinois River near Peoria, Illinois. The 87 dead were mostly women and children enjoying a holiday cruise to a local amusement park.  The survivor stories that followed were stark and dramatic.  “The only thing that kept me afloat,” one woman passenger reported, “were the bodies beneath me.”

The investigation that followed the train wreck, cited human error, specifically blaming the man who could not defend himself, the engineer of the outbound train, David Kennedy.  Only speculation supports the theory that Kennedy mistook a switch engine hauling empty cars for the inbound train. Kennedy was killed instantly in the wreck. A folded “schedule” was reportedly found underneath his body.

The other engineer William Floyd was also killed. He was one day from retirement.

The Nashville wreck to this day is still the deadliest train accident in the history of the U.S.