Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day 1912: G.A.R., Taft & evergreens

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day,  began to be observed in the North soon after the Civil War's end.  100 years ago on May 30, 1912 Union Army veterans, along with much younger Spanish American veterans, gathered in Washington and elsewhere throughout the country to honor their fallen brethren.    In Washington, members of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) and other veteran organizations organized ceremonies at the graves of fallen soldiers and decorated the graves of nearly 50,000 Union soldiers and sailors buried in the area.  Dwindling G.A.R. membership forced the organization in 1912 for the first time ever to solicit external donations to defray the costs of decorating every grave.

Washington's 1912 observations of Memorial Day-- some still referred to it as Decoration Day-- began with a morning parade  downtown led by G.A.R. veterans followed by the United Spanish War Veterans.  At Arlington Cemetery, President Taft addressed the veterans and other distinguished guests at the Arlington Cemetery amphitheater.  Senator Clapp of Minnesota had relayed a constituent's suggestion to President Taft that all Americans "the national colors, or a sprig of evergeeen," on Memorial Day.  Per the "orders of the day," Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was also read as part of the Arlington ceremony.

Services were also held at the various other cemeteries throughout Washington where Union veterans were buried.  At Harmony Cemetery, African American veterans of the G.A.R's Frederick Douglas Post decorated the graves of fallen comrades.  (The Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood metro station is now located on the cemetery's former site)

Other  veterans took a special B&O railroad excursion from Union Station to participate in Decoration Day ceremonies at Gettysburg featuring former President Theodore Roosevelt. (Roosevelt was seeking to return to the White House in the upcoming elections).
In Alexandria, one of the first southern towns occupied by Union forces during the war,  ceremonies were held in honor of the 3,560 Federal soldiers buried in the Alexandria National Cemetery.  The Post's Alexandria correspondent noted that the  holiday for Union soldiers was more widely observed by local businesses in town than in past years.   A week earlier, the Robert E. Lee Camp of Confederate veterans had observed Confederate Memorial Day in Alexandria.

Elsewhere in Washington, Congressman A.W. Rucker of Colorado hosted a dinner for 10 fellow members of Congress and one Supreme Court justice who had served the Confederacy  in their youth.  The Washington Post noted that, "this function will, in all probability, be the last gathering of Confederate soldiers in the official life of the National Capital ... As the years pass, the numerical strength of the Confederate veterans in Congress and on the Supreme Court bench is cut down by death until now only thirteen survive."  The dinner was fixed for the "national Union Memorial Day," in tribute to the Union veterans whom these southern Congressmen had fought on battle fields half a century earlier. 

Overlooking the great racial injustices that still prevailed in the country 50 years after the war, white veterans of both sides emphasized reconciliation.  A May 30, 1912 Washington Post article noted that "Memorial day, in the year 1912, will be more in the nature of a reunion, with the hands of the Confederate gray, closed on the hands of the Yankee blue across the firing line in a union indivisible."

Of course, even in 1912 Memorial Day was viewed by many as more of a recreational occasion.  Ads in local papers enticed folks to spend the day at local resorts such as Glen Echo Park, Colonial Beach, and Luna Park.  Memorial Day found the hapless Washington Nationals on the road playing a doubleheader at Boston's new ballpark.


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