When the graves have been decorated and the volleys fired in the cemeteries and the speeches made and the veterans have marched by this Thursday, it will be the 123rd year that official Memorial Day tributes have been made to fallen U.S. soldiery.
Though Confederate grave decorating and memorial services began soon after the Civil War, the national Memorial Day celebration has Northern roots.
As the story goes, three years after Appomattox settled the Civil War, a Union Army veteran, Gen. N. P. Chipman, then adjutant general of the Ohio Union veteran's group (the Grand Army of the Republic), got a letter from a Cincinnati veteran suggesting that G.A.R. members start decorating the graves of fallen comrades annually on a memorial day. Chipman bounced the idea off Gen. John A. Logan, a Union Army stalwart and national G.A.R. commander, who warmly endorsed the idea.
May 30 was picked as the date for the remembrance, it is believed, because it gave New England and the chillier tier of upper Western states a chance to get at least some plants into bloom.
For the balance of the last century, Memorial Day formalities were largely a G.A.R show. Union vets went in hordes to graveyards, where they decorated comrades' graves. The South organized its own memorial, a Confederate decoration day. The date of the event varied from state to state. It was usually held in April in the Deep South, but sometimes in June and even September.
Plenty of elderly people can remember marching men of the original Union and Confederate armies. On Memorial Day in 1928 there were 35 local veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic still able to attend a grave decoration service in Baltimore. Five of them actually marched the two miles or so of the traditional G.A.R. parade route from Fayette Street and Fremont Avenue to the Loudon Park Cemetery, where 30 survivors gathered. Four thousand people made it to Memorial Day exercises that day.
Other ceremonial spots for Memorial Day exercises in that era included Carroll Park, where the sons of Union veterans and units of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion were filling the thinning ranks of the G.A.R. membership.
Hampden's traditional Union Army Memorial Day parade traveled from 36th Street and Falls Road to 40th Street and Roland Avenue, a route traveled by veterans of the Hampden-Woodberry battalion enrolled in the Civil War. That observance lasted for more than half a century.
In 1935, six Union veterans attended a monument ceremony in Baltimore's Mount Carmel Cemetery organized by the Fredonia council of the Junior Order of United American Mechanics.
As for the "rebel" veterans of the Civil War, they tended to last longer than their Union foes, possibly because they fought younger. But by Memorial Day of 1951 it was time to furl the banner of the Confederacy. Only two men, both 105, made it to the last reunion of the Confederate Army, at Norfolk, Va. (There were only 12 survivors left.) They were on hand with Mrs. James Longstreet, widow of Gen. Robert E. Lee's greatest corps commander, who chatted with journalist Russell Baker about the glory of it all.
Through the years, Memorial Day ceremonials have taken poignant form. In 1956, the Naval Academy floated an anchor of poppies down the Chesapeake Bay in memory of its heroes. In 1928, a Sun reporter observed local survivors of the Union Army on parade and wrote: "They were not pathetic figures we generally associate with the weakness of old age, with the drab failures of life, but must have seemed to onlookers as among the favorite sons of fortune, still treading at 80 the paths of glory on which they had set foot in their early youth." *