- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

BOALSBURG, Pa. (AP) — It was a somber show of respect and love that brought three women to the village cemetery in 1864 to lay flowers and ferns on the graves of Civil War soldiers.

Residents say that act 139 years ago marked the nation’s first Memorial Day observance. But some two dozen communities across the United States — from Columbus, Miss., and Macon, Ga., to Richmond, Va., and Carbondale, Ill. — also claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day.

“It’s very competitive,” said Sara Amy Leach, the senior historian at the National Cemetery Administration, who helps coordinate Memorial Day events for the federal government.

“I think there was a lot of need to come to conciliation after the Civil War, and things like Memorial Day and ceremonies that gave you occasion to look back and respect lost citizens was a very popular thing to do,” Miss Leach said. “It would be very difficult to go back and decide who did what.”

The official distinction, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, is held by the village of Waterloo, N.Y.

“LBJ was wrong,” said Margaret Tennis, 75, who helps organize Boalsburg’s annual Memorial Day celebration. “We have to go along with it, because we can’t change that. It’s just one of those things.”

Since that day in 1864, Boalsburg residents have gathered at the village square once a year for the quiet trek to decorate veterans’ graves.

In Waterloo, Memorial Day was first celebrated nearly two years later — on May 5, 1866. Villagers lowered flags to half staff and marched to their three local cemeteries to decorate graves. The ceremony was repeated the next year.

“We have the congressional designation, and we’re very proud of it. We tell everybody that we’re the birthplace of Memorial Day,” said Jane Shaffer, who is chairing Waterloo’s celebration this year.

“There’s always been other communities throughout the United States that have laid claim to it,” she said. “We can’t say, ‘No, they weren’t.’ Who knows for sure? But we felt strongly about the origins that it started here, and we pursued it all the way through the U.S. Congress.”

One of the earliest accounts of decorating Civil War graves, according to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, happened on April 13, 1862.

On that day, a group of volunteers led by a Sarah J. Evans paid homage at the graves of soldiers who died defending the nation’s capital. Their graves, all in the Washington area, were decorated again in 1863 and 1864, and Ms. Evans was dubbed the “originator of Memorial Day” in 1873 by a Grand Army of the Republic post in Des Moines, Iowa, according to the VA.

Historian David W. Blight, a professor of American history at Amherst College in Massachusetts, said Memorial Day most likely evolved in the South, perhaps by former slaves.

While researching the origins of Memorial Day for his book “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” Mr. Blight discovered evidence of what he described as a “significant” ceremony in Charleston, S.C., on May, 1, 1865.

On that day, an estimated 10,000 people — black children, women and men, joined by white missionaries and abolitionists — paraded to a mass grave site of Union soldiers at a former society racetrack.

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