The Origins of Memorial Day

Across the country there will be Memorial Day ceremonies today. I recently had the chance to visit two towns that claim the origins of Memorial Day.  Last September I was in upstate New York, near Waterloo. Reading up on the area before I left, I found that the town claims the origin of Memorial Day, and there is a National Memorial Day Museum there. I made it a point to stop there and visited the cemeteries where the first commemorations took place.

In the fall of 1865, Waterloo pharmacist Henry C. Welles proposed honoring the veterans in the town cemeteries.  The following winter in 1866 he sought the help General John B. Murray, who instantly agreed.  On May 5, 1866 Waterloo held its first Memorial Day.

Henry Welles

John Murray began his military service in 1862 as Captain of the 148th New York.  The unit saw a great deal of action around Richmond and in North Carolina late in the war.  Murray had risen to Brigadier General by the time the unit returned home in 1865.  After the war he served as clerk of Seneca County.

John Murray

Welles and Murray organized the visits to St. Mary’s Cemetery and Maple Grove Cemetery.  More recent research suggests that the first ceremony actually took palace in 1868 rather than 1866.

Whether 1866 or 68, the efforts of Welles and Murray seem to have had an influence on General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of Union veterans.  Logan’s wife, Mary, also observed the custom in Petersburg, VA.

John Logan

 

Inspired by the need to honor Union dead, Logan issued orders for the national observance of Decoration Day: “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 . . .”

“It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades.” Henry C. Welles died in July, 1868, but lived long enough to see Memorial Day nationally proclaimed by General John Logan of the G.A.R.

Today the National Memorial Day Museum is on Main Street in Waterloo.  It includes exhibits on the town’s role in starting the holiday as well as on local veterans and military units.  A downtown park has a plaque commemorating its role in establishing the holiday.  But was it the first?

It was exciting to visit the museum, small town, and cemetery where these events took place.  But growing up in Central Pennsylvania, I knew of another town that claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day.

While visiting family in Pennsylvania, I had the chance to stop by Boalsburg, not far from Penn State.

Monument honoring the three women who began the tradition in Boalsburg, PA

Here in October 1864, Emma Hunter, Sophie Keller, Elizabeth Myers decorated the graves of two men who died in the war.  They were Dr. Ruben Hunter, Emma’s father and surgeon in the 54th Pennsylvania, who had died the month before, and Private Amos Myers, the son of Elizabeth.  Amos was in the 148th Pennsylvania and was killed on July 3 at Gettysburg.

Grave of Amos Myers, one of the first two decorated.

 

As in Waterloo, Boalsburg makes Memorial Day its claim to fame. In the Boalsburg Cemetery stands an impressive monument honoring the ladies who began the tradition.  Not far are the graves of Dr. Ruben Hunter and Amos Myers, where the tradition began.

Yet Waterloo’s claim received national attention.  On May 26, 1966 President L.B. Johnson signed a presidential proclamation noting that Waterloo had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866.  Recognition from the highest office in the land seemed to confer legitimacy on Waterloo’s claim.

In addition, there were many smaller efforts across the country, and many of them happened as part of Reconstruction in the occupied South.  In 1865 in Charleston, S.C., black laborers properly reburied the Union dead, and on May 1, a cemetery dedication was held, attended by thousands of freed blacks who marched in procession.  This was a one-time event, however, and did not become an annual observance.

Grave of Dr. Reuben Hunter

In other places, like Richmond and Winchester, Union occupation forces joined with government works, freed slaves, and Unionists to hold ceremonies in National Cemeteries.  These observances were decidedly small and drew little support from the surrounding communities.

Other towns claim the holiday’s origins as well.  Columbus, Mississippi, in the state’s northeastern section, received many wounded from the 1862 battle of Shiloh.  Many who did not recover were buried here.  On April 25, 1866, four women met on North 4th Street in Columbus to begin a procession to decorate the graves of those fallen.  According to tradition, the women had come to decorate Confederate graves, but saw the Union graves neglected, so placed flowers there too.

Another Columbus, in Georgia, also makes the claim.  Resident Mary Ann Williams wrote an open letter in the spring of 1866 suggesting “a day be set apart annually” and become a “custom of the country” to decorate the graves of soldiers with flowers. “We cannot raise monumental shafts, and inscribe thereon their many deeds of heroism, but we can keep alive the memory of the debt we owe them by dedicating at least one day in each year to embellishing their humble graves with flowers,” she wrote. Her letter was published in many newspapers across the South, and this is perhaps one of the origins of Confederate Memorial Day.  Various southern states observe this holiday on different dates from April through June.

There is another contender for the first observance: Carbondale, IL, General Logan’s hometown.  Logan led a ceremony at Woodlawn Cemetery here on April 29, 1866 to honor the Civil War dead.

Decorating graves in springtime was an old custom that already existed before the war.  Perhaps this tradition was modified by citizens as a result of the recent conflict.  In 1971 President Richard Nixon declared Memorial Day a Federal Holiday.  Its origins seem to have sprung from many communities, some based on prewar traditions of spring cemetery decorations, and evolved into a national holiday with a separate Confederate component.  In some southern states, Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday.

I will close this article with the opening from Theodore O’Hara’s poem, Bivouac of the Dead, which is displayed in National Cemeteries across the nation:

The Muffled drum’s sad roll has beat The soldier’s last tattoo; No more on Life’s parade shall meet That brave and fallen few. On Fame’s eternal camping-ground.  Their silent tents are spread, And Glory guards, with solemn round, The bivouac of the dead.

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7 Responses to The Origins of Memorial Day

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    Excellent article!
    And I would only add the reference of April-July 1923 Vol.16 No.1/2 pages 232 – 235 of “The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society” for those interested in more detail regarding Mrs. John Logan’s role in advancing what would become Memorial Day.

  2. Vic Vignola says:

    Thanks for the article Bert.
    I have found 1869 newspaper references to the day being referred to as ‘Commemoration Day’. Was Commemoration Day the original name of reference? If so, do you have information as to when reference changed from Commemoration to Memorial? Not that it significantly changes regarding the importance of the date, for my information, I was just wondering if Commemoration Day was the original name for the observation.
    Thanks again

    • Bert Dunkerly says:

      Thanks Vic, as far as I can tell, Decoration Day was the original name. But as there were several places of origin, other names could have been used locally until the movement unified and became national.

  3. mark harnitchek says:

    Thanks Bert…nice post…my grandmother always called it Decoration Day in reference to putting flowers on CW veteran’s graves.

  4. John Pryor says:

    Our local historian, who advanced the claim for Waterloo several years ago, has since retracted it. He did so in a full article in our local newspaper, which is the home town of Gideon Welles. As noted, Welles’ brother allegedly started the Day in Waterloo.

  5. Enjoyed the article.

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