I am re-posting an article from three years ago, about my hometown, and Memorial Day
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.
Many of them fell on the same day, holding the line at Gettysburg.
Some were draftees. A good number of them were immigrants. German, English, Irish, Canadian, they died along with the native-born.
In 1966, for the centennial of the event, the village was recognized by gubernatorial, Congressional and Presidential proclamations as
“The Birthplace of Memorial Day.”
Waterloo’s ceremonies were not the earliest memorial services, 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 of 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.
In 1862, President Lincoln signed a law creating federal cemeteries. And for five years after the war, from Maryland to New Mexico, Florida to Pennsylvania, soldiers from the Quartermaster Corps gathered their comrades’ remains where they were bivouacked in shallow graves near battlefields, camps, prisons, and hospital yards. Farmers working their fields contributed an additional harvest, to be re-buried in orderly plots, some of them laid out uniformly in huge federal cemeteries, some sent home to family burial grounds, some stationed together in areas of village or city cemeteries, 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 an olive branch and 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 another piece of granite were added to our 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).
And so it goes.
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” helicopter 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 Nazi 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.
15 thoughts on “The 150th Memorial Day ~~ Waterloo, NY ~ May 1866”
Sadly, I imagine almost all nations have had a need for commemorative days for their war dead. Perhaps an age will come when such things will look only to the distant past and no new names will be added to the rolls of honor and the books of remembrance.
This is wonderful — and just a little amusing. I wasn’t sure anyone else would be tagging their Memorial Day post “Civil War” or “Decoration Day,” but here you are. And I’m so glad you highlighted the fact that, in the South, both Confederate and Union graves were decorated.
When I was in school, we memorized “Flanders Field,” and always purchased and wore one of the Veterans’ poppies. I’ve not checked yet, but last year there still were poppies being sold in front of one of our grocery stores. I like the custom. I’ve never seen the Saint-Gaudens memorial. It truly is beautiful, and the addition of the poppies is perfect.
I really enjoyed this. It’s full of interesting detail, and so well written. Thanks for adding some richness to Memorial Day.
The paper poppies are still a VFW fundraiser in my town. In some ways, I think there has been a blending in the meaning of Decoration Day/Memorial Day with Armistice Day/Veteran’s Day — of course, it is always good to seize any opportunity to honor veterans.
You’re right that the two occasions are merging. I suspect part of the reason is that concerns about the treatment of veterans today — medically and otherwise — are in the forefront of many peoples’ minds. Issues such as PTSD and the increasing number of suicides among vets make concern for the living as important as remembrance of the dead.
Hi. Our nation has, obviously, a tumultuous history. I think I read that PBS soon will air a series about Reconstruction. It should be fascinating and enlightening.
Oh good, I’ve always been interested in that period. In some ways the 1876 election seems like one of the all time low points for our country.
Outstanding post, Robert!! Have a memorable weekend, my friend.
Thank you! You too GP!
The belated reading of this essay was a pleasure. What a remarkable little surprise to learn about the link between that history of the Memorial Day observance and your hometown Waterloo but also much more. Thank you for re-sharing this dignified, thoughtful handling, Robert. Perchance did you travel back to NY for the long weekend or stay in Wisconsin?
Hi Jason – thank you for the nice comment. It’s the busy season at work, so glad to have a 3-day weekend, but I didn’t go back to NY. I heard the big parade there was cancelled this year, due to lightning. The official observance is Thursday, but it’s usually pretty muted, mostly veterans’ groups visiting the cemeteries to lay wreaths, etc.
A beautiful post about the sadness of war. I wonder if we human beings will ever stop fighter each other…
Thank you, Otto. It doesn’t look like the fighting will stop anytime soon, but at least it seems to run like a low-grade fever for years. That’s not to minimize the losses that are happening, but an improvement relative to 1914-18 or 1939-45.
Beautifully done, and moving, Robert. My son joined the Marines, and in Iraq and Afghanistan he survived, but his buddy Sean didn’t. Blown up by an IED 8 years ago last month, he rests now at Arlington, where the caissons and guns firing, the pomp and ceremony, were impressive, but nothing compared to his family’s grief. While we saw Sean buried underground his buddies continued their duties back in Helmund Province. More died of course. Senseless.
It doesn’t seem to ever stop. I’m sure Mem’l Day is hard for your son.
I’m glad to work with foreign students – – not to sound like a Pollyanna, but I believe if enough folks get to really understand each other’s countries and make friends, it can be a game-changer.
Though I knew that, it was brought home again recently after we spent three weeks in Northern Europe – and that’s a region that’s comparatively similar to ours. But still, there are gaps in understanding, and spending time together is such a good way to bridge them. I’m glad you’re making a living doing i!