What are you doing today?
Barbecuing? Spending the day with friends on the deck?
Maybe getting the boat ready to take out on the water?
Yes, it is a great day for all that, but among the celebrating and the time off work, hopefully all of us will remember its true meaning.
Memorial Day is observed to honor the men and women who died while serving our country. It originally was known as Decoration Day, and began in the years following the Civil War, which due to the amount of war dead, led to the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries.
Gen. John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, on May 5, 1868, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month: “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 during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
By the late 1860s, Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to their fallen soldiers, decorated their graves with flowers and recited prayers.
The date of Decoration Day was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle. On the first Decoration Day, Gen. James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. It is believed that 5,000 people decorated the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington.
Over time, the tradition took root and continued to spread throughout the northern states. Southern states continued to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I. And while Memorial Day originally honored those who died while fighting in the Civil War, during World War I the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars.
For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30. But in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. The change went into effect three years later and Mem-orial Day became a federal holiday.
Locally, according to Carrie Eilderts of the Clinton Sawmill Museum, the early Memorial Days in Clinton were all about remembering the Civil War. Veterans would put on their blue uniforms with the brass buttons and mingle together, remembering the battlefield and fellow soldiers who died during the war or since.
Eilderts writes: “Ceremonies would be held at the G.A.R. Hall. The G.A.R., or Grand Army of the Republic, was an organization for veterans of the Union. There would usually be patriotic music as well, including familiar songs such as ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and ‘My Country ‘tis of Thee.’ Special recognition would be given to veterans who had died within the last year. A parade would often start on Fifth Avenue and end at Springdale Cemetery, where there would be more speeches and poems, and the graves of Civil War soldiers would be decorated with flowers, flags, and wreaths, hence the original name Decoration Day.
“In 1892, the Memorial Day ceremony included a special dedication of a new monument in Springdale Cemetery by the Gen. N. B. Baker Post of the G.A.R., along with the Women’s Relief Corps. It was during this time period that many Civil War monuments were built in an effort to remember and celebrate the veterans who were aging and passing away. The granite monument is 17 feet tall, and features a 7-foot soldier standing at parade rest. The figure represents all volunteer soldiers of the Civil War. The monument still stands in Springdale Cemetery, surrounded by the graves of Civil War soldiers.
“An interesting side note is that the N. B. Baker Post of the G.A.R was named for Gen. Nathaniel Bradley Baker. Baker served as governor of New Hampshire for a year, but lost when he ran for re-election. He soon moved to Clinton, where he practiced law and was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives. He was well-known as a Civil War General, and he was responsible for the formation of the Iowa National Guard. He eventually moved to Des Moines, where he is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
“While Memorial Day started as a day to remember the Civil War, the end of World War I saw a shift towards remembering those who died in all wars. This shift was seen in Clinton as well. For instance, the Memorial Day headline in the Clinton Advertiser on May 30, 1927, read ‘Veterans of All Wars are on Parade Today.’ The annual parade to Springdale Cemetery was done in sections to include veterans of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and the ‘late war’ as they referred to World War I.”
We encourage our readers to take a break today, and head to one of the Memorial Day services in our area or take a stroll through their local cemetery, which will be filled with flowers and veterans' graves that have been decorated.
If you have a little more time, check out the monuments in Springdale Cemetery or those on Riverview Drive at Fifth Avenue South. It’s not only a great way to share history and Clinton’s role in it, but also to remember and honor those soldiers who gave their lives for our nation.