- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 25, 2002

The roots of Memorial Day stretch back to the end of the Civil War, when tens of thousands of soldiers lay in graveyards throughout the countryside and a newly unified nation was beginning to heal its wounds. Decoration Day, as it was called then, originated from the desire of those who survived the war, civilian and military alike, to honor those who were consumed in that furnace.

Certainly there were many memorial services throughout the country during the aftershock of that cataclysmic event, but Waterloo, N.Y., is known as the "birthplace of Memorial Day." The idea came from Henry Carter Welles, a local druggist who suggested it to the Seneca County Clerk John B. Murray, a veteran of the war.

Welles, in addition to being a pharmacist, was a member of the church vestry, the chief engineer of the village fire department and the village treasurer. He was instrumental in organizing the 33rd New York Volunteers, Company C, known as the Waterloo Wright Guards.

Murray had entered the war as captain of the 50th New York Engineers and resigned in July 1862. Two months later, he re-entered the Army, becoming major of the 148th New York Volunteers. He eventually was brevetted to brigadier general.

These two men got a committee of local citizens into action. On May 5, 1866, Waterloo was draped in black mourning streamers and evergreen boughs for a day of remembrance. As the American flag fluttered at half-mast, a procession of veterans accompanied by martial music strode through the streets to each of the three town cemeteries and laid wreaths on the graves of their fallen comrades.

Gen. John Alexander Logan of Illinois, as leader of a group of Union veterans, moved to expand the remembrance beyond Waterloo. A member of Congress at the outset of the war, he fought at the Battle of First Manassas with a Michigan regiment, became colonel of the 31st Illinois in September 1861 and was wounded at Fort Donelson in February 1862. When promoted to brigadier general in May 1862, Logan resigned his seat in Congress. During the siege of Vicksburg, he led his men in an assault against the Confederate works, earning the Medal of Honor.

Logan returned to Congress after the war, later became a U.S. senator and campaigned as the vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket with James G. Blaine in the 1884 election. They lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland and his running mate, Thomas A. Hendricks.

On May 5, 1868, Logan, as commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union veterans, issued General Order No. 11. It declared in part: "The 30th 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 and during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land."

Wounds ran deep, however. The Southern states did not recognize May 30 as Decoration Day. Each state had designated its own day on which to honor Confederate war dead.

Louisiana and Tennessee celebrate on June 3, the Carolinas on May 10, Georgia and Florida on April 26. Also in April, Mississippi celebrates on the last Monday and Alabama on the fourth Monday. In Texas, it is Jan. 19, and in Virginia the last Monday in May.

The day of remembrance eventually evolved as a commemoration of all of American war dead but it wasn't until after World War I that the Southern states recognized a national Decoration Day in addition to their state observances. By then, the ceremonial duties had shifted from the Grand Army of the Republic to the newly formed American Legion..

During the unveiling of a statue of Logan at the Murphysboro, Ill., courthouse in 1930, the general's daughter Dollie dedicated a bronze plaque engraved with General Order No. 11 and a bas-relief of her father. The Women's Relief Corps has erected copies of the plaque in various cities throughout the nation.

In May 1966, Waterloo's place in national history was sealed. New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, and President Johnson officially recognized the town as the birthplace of Memorial Day. In 1971, the event was declared a federal holiday by President Nixon. It is observed on the fourth Monday of May.

The Waterloo Memorial Day Museum is at 35 E. Main St., and the Gen. John A Logan Museum is in Murphysboro Ill.

Mary Ahrends, a former Fairfax County police officer, is the editor of the Bull Run Civil War Round Table newsletter. Special thanks to Mike Jones of the Logan Museum and to Jim Hughes of the Waterloo Memorial Day Museum for assistance.


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