On May 30, America will pause once again to remember the men and women who have died in defense of this nation.
Memorial Day officially started in 1868 when Major General John A. Logan, head of the postwar Union veterans’ group called the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that on May 30, “the choicest flowers of springtime” should be placed on the graves of Union soldiers and sailors who had saved the Union and ended slavery.
Logan’s declaration introduced the nation to Decoration Day. With the passage of time, Decoration Day became Memorial Day and was extended to honor all Americans who died in the service of their country. (However, to this day, some southern states honor their Civil War dead with Confederate Memorial Day.)
In 1868, Michigan communities took General Logan’s pronouncement seriously.
At “an early hour,” Coldwater merchants decorated their stores with flags “and other appropriate emblems in honor of our departed heroes.” At 11:00 A.M., a mile-long procession of veterans, clergy, public officials, relatives of deceased soldiers and the Coldwater Brass Band wound its way from the city’s public square to the city cemetery. More than three thousand persons listened to songs sung by the Quartette Club and an address by Civil War veteran Jonas H. McGowan. An observer noted that the flowers placed on the graves were “truly magnificent.”
In Hillsdale, local citizens, joined by Hillsdale College faculty and students, paraded to Oak Grove Cemetery where they sang “America” and the “Star Spangled Banner,” before visiting the soldiers’ graves that were strewn with flowers.
In Romeo, an evergreen-covered cross inscribed with the name of the deceased soldier was placed at the head of each grave. Local women also erected an empty tomb for “those fallen heroes who were buried upon the [southern] battle-field.” A half-mile procession of citizens passed each grave, “depositing upon them their offerings of flowers as they passed.”
In Detroit, citizens who gathered at Elmwood Cemetery were led in prayer by the Reverend John Seage, a wounded veteran of the Fourth Michigan Infantry, and listened to patriotic music played by the twenty-piece band of the 43rd U.S. Infantry Regiment. A speakers’ platform was decorated with American flags, a large stuffed eagle and “the rarest plants and flowers,” including a flowering cactus in bloom. Evergreens, roses and white lilies were used to create arches at the cemetery entrance.
Introduced as “the soldier’s friend,” long-time Detroit lawyer Theodore Romeyn affirmed that placing flowers on the graves of those men who had died for the Union was a “simple” and “appropriate” symbol of remembrance for men who had “died for their country . . . and for us.” Romeyn, a Democrat who had supported Republican Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in 1864 and played a prominent role in raising troops throughout the war, also reminded the assemblage that for every burial stone “there is a vacant chair at the hearthstone.” While honoring the dead was “pleasing and grateful,” Romeyn added that “a higher duty” required that the children and wives who had lost loved ones in the war be visited and cheered to help them “in their affliction.”
The Detroit Free Press writer who covered the day’s festivities noted that all who attended Michigan’s first Decoration Day “came away with softened hearts, and fresher, deeper memories of the gallant dead.”
IMAGE CREDIT: Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-15990, drawing reads:
“Gallant charge by two companies of the 6th Michigan on Tuesday morning on the rebel rearguard, near Falling Waters, where part of the rebel army crossed the Potomac. This charge was really a very brilliant and dashing affair. The cavalry numbering not more than fifty or sixty men, charged up a steep hill in the face of a terrific fire, went over the breast works and captured nearly the intire [sic] force of the enemy with two or three regimental battle flags. Our boys were at least two thirds of the men engaged killed and wounded, quite a number of the dead were lying inside the works. This charge deserves an illustration, as it is without execption the most brilliant charge that has been made.”
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