Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Statewide Decoration Day observances begin in New York State to mixed reviews

John A. Logan.
Library of Congress.
Honoring dead Union soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers began on a statewide basis in New York State in 1868 when John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a national Union veterans organization, set aside May 30th as a day for all the GAR Posts in the country to decorate the graves of comrades who died “in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Logan did not prescribe a set form of ceremony for each Post to follow but he did suggest that the graves “of our heroic dead” be decorated with “the choicest flowers of springtime.”
            New York State’s GAR Posts from the North Country to New York City organized observances. In Malone, near the Canadian border, a procession comprised of members of the local GAR Post and citizens formed at the railroad station at 6 pm. Headed by the Malone Band which played dirges and marches, they proceeded to the Malone Cemetery and decorated the graves of soldiers, listened to remarks made by two clergymen, marched back around all the graves again, and then dispersed.
Orphans decorating their fathers' graves in Glenwood Cemetery,
 Philadelphia, on Decoration Day, 1876. Library of Congress.

            As might be expected, the Decoration Day parade in New York City was much larger. It had divisions consisting of several bands; marching units from the army, marines and national guard; and companies of orphans, disabled veterans, political leaders, and representatives of civic organizations. They marched down Fourth Avenue to Broadway and then to Fulton Street where they boarded the ferry to Brooklyn and proceeded to the Cyprus Hills Cemetery where the grave decorating ceremony took place.
            The public reaction to Decoration Day was mixed. Small communities like Malone generally gave the ceremony a thumbs up. The Malone Palladium called for Decoration Day to become a permanent and national custom. Big cities, such as New York and Brooklyn, were not so positive – in fact, they were extremely negative! For example, The New York Times described the day as a “conspicuous failure” that had the potential of turning into a sacrilegious celebration.
            Reasons for this negative reaction, and a thought-provoking rejoinder to them will follow in future posts.

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