Forty-five years ago, Memorial Day became a national holiday.
But in Waterloo, NY, my hometown, this year will be 150th observance of Memorial Day.
Often called “Decoration Day” in some parts of the U.S., it was conceived after the Civil War, as a call to remembrance of the soldiers who died in the war.
It now commemorates the soldiers who have died during all of America’s wars.
The residents of Waterloo first held the ceremony in 1866, and have never failed to mark the event since then.
Fifty-eight villagers had died fighting for the Union Army.
Some were draftees. A good number of them were immigrants. German, English, Irish, Canadian, they died along with the native-born.
In 1966, the village was recognized by Congressional and Presidential proclamations as “The Birthplace of Memorial Day.”
Waterloo’s ceremonies were not the earliest, nor were they the sole inspiration for our national day of commemoration. Nonetheless, the village should be recognized as a “birthplace,” because it was the first community to institute a non-sectarian, community-wide, official event. All businesses in the village closed that day, and the commemorations have been consistently observed, in peacetime and wartime, each and every year since 1866.
In Waterloo, it was never “Decoration Day;” it has always been called “Memorial Day.”
In 1866 the entire country was already in mourning, and trying to come to terms with the loss hundreds of thousands of citizens. It was a nation of widows, orphans, bereaved parents, lost families, and countless veterans left maimed physically and mentally, and sometimes, shipped home only to continue dying from wartime injuries, diseases, and drug addictions.
There was a common impulse, North and South, to pay tribute to the dead, by formal observances, floral tributes, speeches, parades and poetry. From Maryland to New Mexico, Florida to Pennsylvania, soldiers’ remains were gathered from shallow graves near battlefields, camps, prisons, and hospital yards, and re-buried in orderly plots, some of them laid out uniformly in huge federal cemeteries, and some designed as beautiful community parks . A new industry was born, as sculptors began to create thousands of monuments. Robert E. Lee’s “Arlington” estate was transformed into a vast necropolis.
It was at Arlington National Cemetery, in 1868, that General John “Black Jack” Logan and the G.A.R. (which became the largest Union veteran’s group) initiated the ceremony which became the national Memorial Day.
Logan began his political career as a pro-slavery racist, but during the course of the war, was transformed not only into one of the best of the politician-generals, but also into a “Radical Republican,” supporting the freed slaves.
My favorite story is from Columbus, Georgia, also during the spring of 1866, because the townsfolk there decorated both Confederate and Union graves.
“Decoration Day” had long existed as a custom in many communities, when the grass at burial grounds was trimmed, and evergreen boughs and flowers were brought graveside.
The association of greenery and flowers with memorial services long predates the Civil War, or even the existence of the United States. Flowers and garlands have been found in Neolithic graves and Pharaohs’ tombs.
For many people, especially in English-speaking countries, poppies are now associated with the First World War and remembrance of “Flanders fields”. But for many centuries before that, they served as a symbol of sleep, death, oblivion, ease of pain, and for some, resurrection. Poppies are mentioned in this way by Roman poets and Shakespeare, and you’ll see them carved on old tombstones and monuments from the Civil War.
On Boston Commons, there is a beautiful bronze sculpture by Saint-Gaudens, portraying Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment, comprised of free blacks and escaped slaves. Above the soldiers, hundreds of whom died in a hopeless assault at Fort Wagner, is the figure of a woman, not a Winged Victory, I think, but a gentle-looking angel of death, carrying poppies.
In a sense, Memorial Day is “kept evergreen,” as the old folks used to say, because generation after generation has produced a new crop of fatalities to mourn.
A few years ago, another shrub and a piece of granite were added to the village green. A “Rose of Sharon,” the national flower of South Korea, was planted as a remembrance of what some call “The Forgotten War”. I don’t think our climate will allow a pool of lotus flowers for Vietnam, but we can grow hardy varieties of roses (Iraq) and certainly tulips (Afghanistan).
Reminders are everywhere.
The bronze Napoleons on our village green are from the Civil War. The most popular cannons of the war, they could shoot a twelve-pound iron ball for nearly a mile, or shred infantrymen with grapeshot and canister.
The V.F.W. has a “Huey Cobra” on their lawn, to evoke Vietnam. Over 3,300 of them went down during the war.
The American Legion sports a 37mm M3, a little antitank cannon, from WWII. It’s shells proved effective against lightly-armored Japanese tanks, but bounced off the panzers like marbles.
Driving around this area, you’ll find a Revolutionary cannon, a Korean War jet, an armored car…it will just be a matter of time before they ship us a Humvee or a Bradley in desert paint.
It would be nice to have more flowers around here, too. There are poppies in the garden at home. They blossom this time of year, but last a very short time, before the petals fall to the ground.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.