Honoring the Brave

Memorial Day in the past was more focused on its meaning than today’s day of sales, barbecue and travel ... but the old tradition of honor, as reflected in this old placard from Brooklyn, N.Y., remains for those who choose not to overlook it.

Monday is Memorial Day, that first long weekend of summer when everyone cooks out and travels. I am not sure how all that is going to play out this year. I know a lot of backyard cooking will happen if we can find something to cook that does not break the bank.

Last year I wrote about the centennial of the 1919 Memorial Day celebration at Mt. Pisgah Church. We had a grand centennial celebration in honor of that event last May. In 1919 they had their own pandemic and I may have totally glossed over that last year. I brought the memory of the 1919 pandemic back in a recent article. I was looking at a photo of a 1919 Memorial Day parade in Virginia just this week. The old Confederate Veterans did not let a little pandemic mess up their parade. They were riding horses, in cars and marching. No masks, no social distancing. I am sure they were not too concerned with a little virus after having fought Yankees for 4 years and living to still tell about it 60 years later.

Yes, I have been hanging around those 100-year-old newspapers again. I always enjoy reading about how holidays were celebrated and commemorated. It is fun to see how much things have changed and yet remained the same.

Decoration Day started in the South where flowers bloomed early and mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters decorated, not only the graves of loved ones, but soldiers’ graves, with flowers. They felt for the women of the North who had lost loved ones in the war, many times not knowing where they were buried, and decorated those graves too. Women in the north picked up on decorating the graves of all soldiers. The tradition was born long before the war ended. There are three towns in the North with signs saying they are the birthplace of Memorial Day, but I would not place any bets on it.

I remember well as a child my mom growing special flowers for her own mother’s grave and going to Decoration Day at different church cemeteries so she could place flowers on our kinfolks’ graves. It was a time when family came together and visited. Decoration Day was one of the few times one saw the extended family. People interested in genealogy and family stories would wait around the graves and in time someone would come along that could share the desired knowledge, neatly preserved in their memory. There was dinner on the grounds, and it was a time when people gave generously for the upkeep of loved ones’ graves for another year. Do we even think about that today? Any idea what it costs to keep up a cemetery?

In 1868, General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Union Army’s Veteran’s Association, instituted the first official “Decoration Day,” calling for it to be celebrated in cities and towns across the country. Veterans of both sides honored each other, but not always. While veterans placed flags and an occasional wreath, the floral decorations fell to the women.

General Logan ordered Union veterans to decorate the graves of former Confederates wherever they found them. It was “honor answering honor” that I mentioned a couple weeks ago.

In the South the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and in the North the Daughters of Union Veterans, led the charge to see that all veterans were properly honored and their graves properly “Strewn with flowers.” In the spirit of unification, they honored all veterans.

The term “Memorial Day” was not used until 1882, and gradually replaced “Decoration Day” as the name of the honored day, although it would not officially be given the newer name until 1967. In 1968, Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act,” which made four holidays, including Memorial Day, be on a Monday, to create a three-day weekend. While Memorial Day does come this time each year, it is not always on the same date as are some other holidays.

In the social section of the May 28, 1934, edition of The Greeneville Sun, Louise Morey Allen, regent of the Nolachuckey Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, encouraged “all who can to display flags on May 30 -National Decoration Day.” She added, “Members of the DAR will be glad to accept donations of flowers to use in decorating soldiers’ graves on that day.”

On May 27, 1925, The Greeneville Democrat-Sun reported that on May 30 there would be an all-day Decoration Day program at Pine Grove. It featured music by the American Legion Band, and the Mount Pleasant Quartet. The Honorable J.E. Biddle and the Honorable J.W. Howard, both local attorneys, were to make addresses. The program started at 10 a.m. with music, then a prayer and more music, with a couple young ladies reading essays. The Greeneville Quartet sang, then Howard spoke, followed by more singing by the Greeneville Quartet, all before lunch at noon.

Picking back up at 1:30 p.m. following the substantial “Dinner on the Grounds” “The American Legion Ritual Ceremony” was led by commander Stephen H. Broyles. This was followed by a “ceremonial parade” with order of march: Colors (flags) music (bands) firing squad (maybe they were going to shoot the two local attorneys mentioned above) Civil War veterans, Spanish American War veterans, American Legion representatives, followed by others. Why did they leave out the World War I veterans who had just returned home a few years earlier?

I am not sure to where the parade marched, but it was followed by a program called “Ceremony at the Graves.” Likely they just marched around the cemetery to the place they planned for this part of the program. Then it was music by The American Legion Band, an address by Biddle, more music from the American Legion Band and the Greeneville Quartet, closing with “The Star Spangled Banner” and benediction. I am sure this was a spectacular day to behold. I want to say too bad we can’t go back and witness such an event, but as in the Pisgah program last year, we can attempt to replicate it in the honor and memory of the day and of those gone before.

The Greeneville Daily Sun on July 23, 1919, announced a Decoration Day at the graves of the “Old Babb grave yard, at Babb’s Mill on Sunday August 10. All who have relatives or friends buried there will meet on Saturday August 2nd, for the purpose of cleaning off the graves. Rev. J. B. Ely, of Greeneville, will be present for Decoration Day and deliver the address.”

The Greeneville Daily Sun of June 12, 1919, gives a glimpse of how the day was observed elsewhere though a letter soldier Earl Holland wrote to his sister, Fanny, from Jefferson Barracks, Mo. He wrote, “You should have seen the crowd here on the 30th (Decoration Day). The crowd was estimated at about 10,000 people, and I really believe there was that many or more. I never did see such a crowd of people. We soldiers had to parade from 10 o’clock in the morning till 6 o’clock at night. I was sure tired and glad to see them leave. I shot my rifle so much my shoulder is sore. We had five sham battles and one at the grave yard. The street cars ran all night, and were all loaded, also the steamboats on the river. It was 7:30 next day before the people got out of the camp.”

Local businesses supported the day not with special sales and discounts, but with ads honoring the veterans. The Greeneville Democrat Sun of May 31, 1930, has an ad for Doak Lumber Company of Greeneville. The ad reports, “Bill Der says Decoration Day” and has a cartoon of a piece of lumber dressed in patriotic attire. The talking patriotic board is Bill Der. If you have not picked up on that, just say “Bill Der” fast 2-3 times and you will get it. My first reaction was “Who the heck is Bill Der?” and it finally registered.

The ad has a poem: “Bill Der from work has strayed away, because its Memorial Day, He’ll join the veterans parade, In mem’ry of the debt they paid.” Leave it to a 2X4 patriot to get the true meaning of the day across.

The ad continued “We pause from our labors today to bow our heads to the memory of the Boys of ’61, to whom all honor is due. Let us decorate with flags, the final resting places of these brave men. And let’s not forget flowers for the living either.” Doak Lumber was remembering the “Boys of 61” the veterans of the Civil War – not one side or the other, but all. Do not forget “flowers for the living,” which I take to mean honoring all veterans, and honoring the women who started the tradition, the mothers, sisters, and daughters. I am sure women have honored loved ones by placing flowers on their graves for eons of time before it became fashionable to do so. But the cause of the war gave rise to a blanket honoring of our fallen heroes and loved ones.

When we mention the “Boys of ’61” we must remember that one in four soldiers who marched off never returned home. One in 13 came home missing limbs. The war that resulted in a million and a half casualties (6 million in today’s numbers) affected every town and community. Men bearing scars and missing limbs were a constant reminder. They were proud, they too had paid a price, and dressed in their old uniforms they remembered those who did not come home.

Local churches still have decoration days, still honor our fallen heroes. What has changed is the number of those who remember, who have not forgotten, those who take time to honor those gone before and to remember their families. Children today often cannot name their grandparents, let alone name where they are buried. I know there are exceptions. I remember once when I did not want to go to the decoration at River Hill. My Mom told me I needed to go see my relatives. I told her I “didn’t want to go see all those dead people.” My parents had a way of adjusting how I felt about things, and as years passed, I was glad that I had changed my mind and went to the decoration.

When I go there now, I know where relatives are buried. I can see my Mom placing flowers on her mom’s grave with tears coming to her eyes. I couldn’t understand why that would make her cry, but now I do. I can see men sitting on stones talking. People in chairs under the shade trees and the farm wagons covered with dishes of food. I can still smell the fried chicken. It is some of my only memories of extended family. That is Memorial Day.

The Blue Springs Historical Association plans to hold their annual Decoration Day Friday evening, June 5, and all day Saturday, June 6. It will not be a large venue as in the past. The John Hunt Morgan Camp 2053 Sons of Confederate Veterans will place flags on the soldiers’ graves in a show of respect and remembrance. It is a time to remember friends, family, or to stop by and enjoy some history. The historic church will be open for self-guided tours. They will accept donations to help maintain the cemetery and restore the church building. There may even be a Civil War soldier or two walking about who can share stories with you. The hours are 3-7 p.m. on Friday and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturday.

Greene County historian Tim Massey is an award-winning writer for Civil War News with more than 40 photos featured on various magazine covers. He has served on various boards and held positions in several historic organizations. He can be reached at horses319@comcast.net.

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