On May 30, 1886, a large crowd gathered at Woodland Cemetery to honor the Union dead buried there. The traditions associated with honoring fallen comrades, now known as Memorial Day, had begun even before the end of the Civil War in both the North and South. Following the end of that war, local observances were conducted under the direction of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) an organization of Union veterans founded in 1866 in Springfield, Illinois.
In 1868 the efforts of the national commander of the G.A.R., Gen. John A. Logan, of Illinois, led to the designation of May 30 as a day of remembrance. Serving throughout the war, and being twice wounded, he rose to the rank of major general. He was elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois in 1871, serving until his death in 1886.
Logan’s General Order No. 11 of May 5, 1868, designated the 30th of May as a day of remembrance, a day on which local posts would decorate the graves of their fallen comrades and “in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.” The decoration of graves, often with hand woven greenery or floral wreaths, was organized by local units of the Woman’s Relief Corps, the auxiliary of the G.A.R. Their task was large: by 1870 nearly 300,000 Union dead lay in 73 national cemeteries. In addition to the decorating of soldier’s graves and ceremonies held in the cemeteries, local and national parades and speechifying soon became associated with the day. In the first year of observance, 183 memorial events were held in 27 states. In 1869, the number had grown to more than 300.
In Quincy in 1886, a Memorial Day Executive Committee was organized to arrange the local observances. The committee on music noted that the Gauweiler family band had been secured for a fee of $26, and that vocal music would be provided by the Bohemian Quartet. Col. W. W. Berry invited the Hon. J.W. Johnson of Pittsfield to deliver the day’s oration, and Johnson accepted.
The floral committee reported that Col. W. L. Distin’s “warerooms” had been offered for the gathering of donated greenery and fresh flowers, and the Quincy chapter of the Woman’s Relief Corps (W.R.C.) “would willingly prepare the floral designs” for the individual graves. Wreaths would also be placed on the cannon mounted in the “soldiers’ cemetery,” that portion of Woodland in which Union soldiers’ graves were concentrated.
It was reported that wagons decorated with evergreens would be provided for the women of the W.R.C. and members of the G.A.R. who could not walk in the procession to Woodland. The oration of the day was to be delivered “from the usual point, near the soldiers’ monument,” from a decorated wagon.
Local societies and organizations indicated they would participate, including several chapters of the Knights of Pithias; the Quincy Turners; Quincy’s Robert Shaw Post, No. 232 of the G.A.R. (composed of black veterans), and John Wood Post, No. 96; a platoon of the local police lead by the Chief; the Quincy Drum Corps; and the Gauweiler Band.
Upon reaching Woodland, it was noted, “the civil organizations joining in the procession will act as an escort to the posts of the G.A.R.” forming a line “right to front” at the entrance for the passage of the Robert Shaw and John Wood G.A.R. Posts. These organizations might then disband and join other citizens who had arrived by foot or in carriages on the hills surrounding the speakers’ area to observe the ceremonies.
On May 31, the local papers reported that “everybody, it did seem, was out” for the Memorial Day observances. It was estimated that as many as 15,000 people attended the ceremonies at Woodland, which included placing of an American flag on each of the “already flower bedecked” graves.
For the remainder of the 19th century and well into the 20th, thousands attended Memorial Day observances at Woodland, and at Sunset Hill, the cemetery of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home which opened in 1887. Attendees included those aging Civil War veterans and members of the G.A.R. for whom the observance had originally been intended. Each year, the local Quincy papers recorded the events and noted with respect and sadness the loss of those who had given their lives for their country, and all those who had served their country in past wars.
Called Decoration Day or Memorial Day, the 30th of May officially became “Memorial Day” by Federal Law, in 1967. In 1968, passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved the observance to the nearest Monday, creating a three-day holiday weekend. Although originally observed as a commemoration of those who perished in the Civil War, the holiday now honors all those who have served their country in the military. Yet the patriotic spirit of remembrance displayed in these observances is still perhaps best expressed by the words of General Logan’s General Order No. 11, issued May 5th, 1868:
“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 church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
“Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; 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 a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.”
Blight, David W. Decoration Day: The Origins of Memorial Day in North and South. In Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, eds. The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Cottingham, Carl D. et al. General John A. Logan: His Life and Times. American Resources Group, 1989.
“For Memorial Day.” Quincy Daily Journal, May 11, 1886, 4.
“For Memorial Day.” Quincy Daily Journal, May 29, 1886, 4.
“Memorial Day.” Quincy Daily Journal, May 31, 1886, 4.
Meyers, Robert J. Memorial Day. Chapter 24 in Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1972.
U. S. Memorial Day. “General Order # 11.” http://www.usmemorialday.org/order11.html