The evolution of one small town’s Memorial Day observances mirrors the nation

We’re about to celebrate another Memorial Day, wherein we commemorate the nation’s war dead. And, unfortunately, we seem to have more and more war dead to commemorate every year.

Memorial Day got its start as Decoration Day, the name by which my family still called it when I was a child. When we lived on the farm, we’d visit the graves of family members who served. After moving to town, I participated in Oswego’s annual Memorial Day parade–a tradition that continues to this day–after which we’d drive to cemeteries throughout the area to visit and decorate the graves of deceased relatives. In fact, I credit those Memorial Day cemetery visitations and the stories my folks told about the people whose graves we visited as a big part of what got me interested in history in the first place.

1890 abt Decoration Day Parade

Civil War veteran and Grand Army of the Republic member George White leads Oswego’s Decoration Day parade south on Main Street on the way to the Oswego Cemetery in this undated photo, probably taken about 1890. (Little White School Museum collection)

Decorating the graves of soldiers who died during the Civil War started soon after the conflict ended. Decorating soldiers’ graves actually seems to have started in the South, with one of the first such commemorations being held on May 1, 1866 in Charleston, S.C.. The impromptu event was organized by the city’s black veterans to honor white Union soldiers who died in a local prisoner-of-war camp.

Another, more organized decoration event was organized in Columbus, Ga. that same year, this one by the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of Confederate veterans.

Then former Gen. John A. Logan, head of the Union veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a proclamation on May 5, 1866 calling for an annual Decoration Day to honor the war’s dead. The first one was set for May 30, 1866. Reportedly, Logan chose the date because it was not the date of any of the war’s battles and was late enough in the spring that plenty of flowers would be blooming.

Here in Oswego and the rest of Kendall County, Decoration Day was organized by the members of the Women’s Relief Corps, the homefront organization that had provided so much support for local soldiers serving so far away from home.

The first local mention of decorating soldiers’ graves I’ve been able to track down was in the June 2, 1870 Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” column by correspondent Lorenzo Rank:

“The decoration of the soldiers’ graves yesterday was of a private nature.”

It’s possible decoration of Civil War soldiers’ graves may have begun earlier, but there’s really no record of it. From 1870 on, however, decoration of the graves seems to have become a regular commemoration by the community’s women and young girls. On June 7, 1877, Rank reported that:

“The demonstration on here on Decoration day was not of a general character, yet enough ladies had come together to perform the sacred work and observe the day.”

The next year, Rank explained a little more fully:

“The decoration ceremonies Thursday were of a private nature. A number of ladies met and went to the cemetery with plenty of flowers to copiously decorate all the soldiers’ graves. The speeches made were short but many of them; all spoke that were there.”

So the earliest ceremonies were small, private gatherings, organized to quietly commemorate the service of and to mourn those who gave their lives during the war and after. Here in Kendall County, more than 230 soldiers died during the Civil War. If the same percentage were to die in war today, it would equal more than 2,000 Kendall County residents. As a result, there were few families in the county who were not affected.

But gradually, the emphasis changed, as G.A.R. members across the nation decided to take more control over the annual commemoration of their comrades’ deaths. By 1881, the ceremony here in Oswego had gone well beyond the ladies of the community organizing young girls to go to the cemetery each year to decorate soldiers’ graves. Here’s how Rank reported the day’s events:

Decoration programme at the cemetery:

1. Music by the band;

2. Prayer by Rev. Colgrove;

3. Vocal music;

4. Select reading by Mrs. I.F. Reed;

5. Address by Prof. Duffy;

6. Vocal music;

7. Select reading by D.M. Haight;

8. Vocal music;

9. Decoration of the graves. Capt. Mann at the same time will give a short army sketch of each of the buried soldiers;

10. Music by the band.

The exercises to commence at two o’clock, and it is desirable and the committee so request that business men may close their doors from 2 to 4 p.m. on that day.

On June 30 of that year, the community decided decoration services needed to be more organized. Or more to the point, the G.A.R.’s former soldiers decided it was time to take over. As Rank put it:

“A meeting will be held next Saturday evening at the ex-Red Ribbon hall to which everybody is invited, but more especially the soldiers; the object being to form a permanent organization, which might be called the “Soldiers’ Memorial Society,” and whose duty it shall be to collect and preserve the war records of the boys that went from here and to take charge of the annual decoration of the Soldiers’ graves.”

By 1885, with increased participation by the G.A.R., Decoration Day activities became far more militarized than they had been when they were begun by women mourning the war’s dead. In May 1893, Rank described the Decoration Day observance:

“The soldiers in full dress at 10 Sunday morning rendezvoused at Dr. Lester’s office and, in a body marched to the Congregational church, which for a memorial service was most elaborately and profusely decorated with flags, buntings and flowers.”

The next year, Rank reported the ceremony had gotten even more elaborate:

“Decoration Day in Oswego was made a greater event than ever before. By the middle of forenoon the business houses were almost concealed from view by the bunting with which they were bedecked; every where flags were seen fluttering in the breeze. The procession was led by the Yorkville brass band from the Congregational church to the cemetery where graves were decorated.”

By the time Decoration Day 1898 rolled around, the nation was engaged in what Theodore Roosevelt described as the “Splendid Little War” with Spain. And, believe it or not, there was a lot of second guessing about patriotism and the proper way to honor the nation’s war dead, especially Civil War dead. In a letter to the editor in the June 8, 1898 Kendall County Record, an Oswego writer signing himself as “Gnarl,” wrote a very contemporary-sounding essay, which I’m including in its entirety here:

By May 1957 when Everett Hafenrichter snapped this photo of Oswego's Memorial Day Parade, the change from private, sorrowful commemoration to patriotic ceremony was complete, as the Oswego High School Band under the direction of Reeve R. Thompson marches south on Main Street on the way to the Oswego Cemetery.

By May 1957 when Everett Hafenrichter snapped this photo of Oswego’s Memorial Day Parade, the change from private, sorrowful commemoration to patriotic ceremony was complete, as the Oswego High School Band under the direction of Reeve R. Thompson marches south on Main Street on the way to the Oswego Cemetery. (Little White School Museum collection)


Some Reflections on Patriotism, War, etc.

For several years following the rebellion, the decoration of the soldiers’ graves was not thought of, and, if I mistake not, the practice was first begun in the South. Here in Oswego it was commenced by a few ladies–and such seemed to be the case more or less all over the country–who, on a nice day, would quietly go to the cemetery and place flowers on the graves of the soldiers of the late war. The spirit that then moved the decorators was that of pity; a pity that these young lives should have been sacrificed; that kind of practice would have tended towards aversion to war.

But a regular day was appointed for it; the affair was taken out of the hands of the women by the soldiers, especially by the organized G.A.R. To secure a band was the first move towards decoration; the procession in military order was made the great imposing feature; the oration the more bombastic the better; in short, the spirit of pity was changed to that of glory, and the affair made to stimulate militarism. Under this spirit and practice, it was no wonder that the sporting class improved the day for races, base ball games, etc.

The question now is: Which disposition for a people is the best, the civil or military? A temperance lecture here one evening, of course portrayed the liquor business as the great danger with which the country is threatened; it fully endorsed the war with Spain; closing with a peroration of the most popular sentiments in regard to it such as the holy cause of securing liberty to the oppressed.

To illustrate a point, the opinions of two great men as to the destiny of the United States were quoted: one by President McKinley to the effect “that the institutions handed down by the father are safe in the hands of the people;” the other by the historian Macaulay, in substance “that the government within itself will furnish its destruction by the leading up to a military dictator.”

Considering the military spirit and hero worship to which we are running, the Macaulay opinion is the more in line. The expression “We want to lick Spain like h–l” may not sound very patriotic, but there is such a thing that the greater the victory the worse for the victory. By fighting for liberty for others, you may thereby lose your own. The more fighting, the greater the prestige of the army. Militarism and nobility are going hand in hand. The rule now that when other things being equal preference shall be given to the soldiers for federal offices can be easily enlarged. The islands to be conquered are to be governed by the army, of course, and Hawaii to be annexed by a small fraction of the inhabitants who, though not called nobility, constitute one all the same.

What makes millionaires and the sons of great men so readily enlist in the war but the fame to be realized from it?

Starting in 1868, Decoration Day was observed on May 30 each year. The name wasn’t officially changed to “Memorial Day” until 1967. And with the passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, Memorial Day was officially moved to the last Monday in May.

Today, we’ve entirely given Memorial Day’s observances over to the patriotism of which Gnarl seemed so suspicious in his letter to the editor back in 1898, at the expense of the sorrow for the sacrifices made by so many the members of the Women’s Relief Corps expressed as they began decorating soldiers’ graves nearly 150 years ago. But we do seem to have seen one major change in how we view war and rumors of war. These days “millionaires and the sons of great men” no longer feel the need to gain fame by risking service in their country’s military. And, in fact, in this day and age it seems to be the exact opposite.



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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History

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