The weather in Boston on May 30, 1868, was nothing like it is this weekend. But overcast and rainy conditions didn’t prevent hundreds of people in the city and beyond from participating in solemn tributes for the soldiers and sailors who’d died in battle, from injuries or as a direct result of the war just ended.
The Daily Evening Traveler recounted the May 30 observance of “Decoration Day,” as proclaimed by Gen. John A. Logan, who led the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal group of former Union Army and Navy members.
“In many places the citizens exhibited a commendable spirit by uniting with the G.A.R. in making arrangements for a large demonstration,” the Traveler reported, “and in this section their efforts were crowned with success. Flowers were contributed freely, and the florists in this vicinity disposed of all the bouquets and wreathes they could procure. The weather was not favorable, but no rain fell until the exercises were finished in most cases.”
The newspaper described ceremonies in Boston and surrounding towns, with dispatches from New Hampshire and Maine.
In Lawrence, veterans joined city leaders and 100 men in a procession that wound its way through the city and ended in the cemetery. In Lynn, a procession of police, former soldiers and sailors, and “quite a concourse of citizens proceeded first to the eastern cemetery on Union Street and thence through some of the principal streets, to the western burial ground, at each of which places flowers and evergreens were strewn upon the graves of the sleeping soldiers.”
In Newburyport, the Traveler recounted, “Soldiers’ graves in the several burying grounds were beautifully decorated with bouquets, crosses, wreathes, etc. … The flags in the city were displayed at half-mast, and the bells were tolled.”
Writing many years later, in 1978, for the Washington Post, Joann Stevens described the original intent of Logan’s Order No. 11 calling for a day “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 lie in almost every city, village and hamlet church yard in the land.”
These tributes — such as those practiced in communities throughout New England — reflected “what he viewed as an ancient and beautiful rite of respect for the dead,” she wrote.
Logan’s Grand Army of the Republic wasn’t the first to pay such tribute. The lore of Memorial Day often involves the story of women in Mississippi who placed flowers upon the graves of soldiers, from both sides of battle.
And, certainly this solemn ritual has evolved since. It wasn’t until the early 1970s, when the country was deeply scared by the just-ended Vietnam War, that Memorial Day was permanently affixed to the last Monday in May.
By then the roster of Americans who’d died in sacrifice to their country had grown by a factor. Added to more than 600,000 dead in the Civil War more than 116,000 in World War I; 405,000 in World War II; 36,000 in Korea; and more than 58,000 in Vietnam. Many others were killed in smaller conflicts in between. Thousands more have since died in service in Afghanistan and Iraq. Looking back across history, the human toll of America’s wars is nearly impossible to imagine.
Today, communities in New England and beyond will gather again for parades, processions and ceremonies. These events will assuredly be more modern and grand than the commemorations held upon orders of Gen. Logan, 151 years ago, the florid descriptions of the Daily Evening Traveler aside.
But their sentiment — and the honor and respect for those who’ve died in service to a cause far greater than any of us — does not waver.