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The American Civil War Gave Us “Decoration Day”

By Jim Ignasher

Memorial Day is the day we as a nation remember our war dead, but how many know that it was once known as Decoration Day, or that it came about in the 1860s as a result of the American Civil War? There are several cities and towns that lay claim to the holiday’s origin, but where did it really begin? And how does Smithfield figure into “Decoration Day”?

Shortly after the Civil War ended in 1864, many graves of the war dead were still unmarked, particularly in the southern states. And due to the nature of the war many soldiers on both sides lay buried far from home with nobody to care for or visit their graves. Seeing a need, some kind souls took it upon themselves to begin decorating the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and wreaths. Hence, “Decoration Day”.

The exact origin of Decoration Day is a matter of historical debate, for several different municipalities have officially proclaimed that they were the first to hold Decoration Day ceremonies. At the top of the list is the town of Waterloo, New York, a small community in the Finger Lakes Region of the state. According to local history, the nation’s first “organized” Decoration Day celebration took place on May 5, 1866, at the suggestion of a prominent citizen that was made a year earlier.

Waterloo is also home to The National Memorial Day Museum, and in 1966 the town became federally recognized as the “Birthplace of Memorial Day” when former President Lyndon Johnson signed a proclamation designating it as such.

The motto, “Birthplace of Memorial Day” can be seen on the town’s website.

One might think that that would be the end of the argument, but it isn’t. Other places claiming the origin of the holiday include Charleston, South Carolina, Columbus, and Savannah, Georgia, Columbus, Mississippi, Boalsburg, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Warrenton, Virginia, and New Orleans, Louisiana. And each cites their reasons.

For example, an article that appeared in the New Orleans Daily Crescent on April 27, 1866, stated in part: “In accordance with arrangements agreed upon among the ladies of Alabama, Mississippi, and several other Southern States, yesterday was the day selected for the decoration of the tombs of Confederate soldiers…” This seems to indicate that New Orleans “scooped” Waterloo by nine days. (April 26th was later designated as Decoration Day in some southern locales.)

The Daily Crescent article went on to relate that “a couple of poor seamstresses” had begun to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers as early as 1862 shortly after the Battle of New Orleans.

Then there’s the town of Warrenton, Virginia, which reportedly held decoration ceremonies for the graves of those killed in the First Battle of Manassas in 1861.

Yet despite all the claims, it should be noted the laying of flowers on a grave dates to ancient times, and it’s likely that there have been those “decorating” the graves of fallen warriors for millennia, only the practice wasn’t part of an officially recognized holiday.

Decoration Day became “official” in 1868 with a resolution issued from the headquarters of the Grand Army of the Republic, (G. A. R.), which read in part: “The 30th of May 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating of graves of comrades who died in defense of the country during the late rebellion and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, hamlet, and churchyard in this land. In this observation no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials as circumstances may permit.”

Fifteen years later In April of 1883, the G. A. R. issued another resolution declaring in part “…this holy day should be called Memorial Day and Not Decoration Day.”

Memorial Day continued to be celebrated (in most places) on May 30th until 1971 when it was moved to the last Monday of the month, thus giving us the three-day weekend we’ve come to know today.

Another way that cities and towns began to memorialize their Civil War dead was by erecting monuments in prominent places. The village of Kensington, Connecticut, located within the town of Berlin, lays claim to the first Civil War monument. The twenty-foot tall brownstone obelisk was dedicated July 28, 1863, while the war was still raging. It initially included the names of three local men, but more were added later.

The town of Smithfield also sent her sons to war. At the time, Smithfield still included the present-day municipalities of North Smithfield, Lincoln, Central Falls, and Woonsocket south of the Blackstone River. Today the graves of the some of these men can be found scattered in family-plot cemeteries throughout these municipalities. The Smithfield Veteran’s Memorial at Deerfield Park recognizes those who have served in all wars, but the Town of Smithfield doesn’t have a Civil War memorial.

The town of Lincoln erected an impressive Civil War monument in the Moshassuck Cemetery that was dedicated on May 30, 1888, seven years before the cemetery became part of Central Falls. The monument still stands today.

Memorial Day had traditionally been a day to honor Civil War dead, but with the advent of World War I and its extremely high casualty rate, the day took on added meaning to include the dead of all wars.

There was a time when many towns used to organize large scale Memorial Day parades which included veterans, civic organizations, floats, and bands. Up until the mid 1930s, those parades generally included Civil War veterans. Afterwards their numbers declined sharply as their generation passed into history. The last surviving Civil War union veteran was Albert Henry Woolson who passed away in 1956 at the age of 106. Walter Washington Williams, reportedly the last surviving confederate soldier passed away in 1959 at the age of 117.

It’s unknown where or when the first Decoration Day-Memorial Day parade was held for it seems that no locality makes that claim.

American Legion Balfour-Cole Post 64, Smithfield Memorial Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2929 and its Auxiliary will hold a joint memorial service at the Veterans’ Memorial, Deerfield Park, on Monday, May 27th. The ceremony will begin at 10:30am with a parade of colors featuring the honor guards from the Smithfield Police Department and the Smithfield Fire Department. The public is welcome and encouraged to observe and pay their respects to those who died in service to our country. The town’s veterans respectfully request that the youth of Smithfield please join us to observe this ceremony in order that they will always remember the sacrifices our men and women in uniform endured for their freedoms. In conjunction with the Smithfield Senior Center, in support of Operation Stand Down Rhode Island, there will be a collection of clothing. Donations of new socks and underwear are requested and will be distributed to homeless veterans around the state.