At Antietam site, they call it Decoration Day

May 29, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

SHARPSBURG -- Betty Fairbourn washed and scrubbed her front porch. Her neighbors along Main Street painted trim around windows and doors, planted flowers and hung the Stars and Stripes.

Remembering their own and the country's war dead on Decoration Day -- the original name by which Memorial Day is still widely known here -- is a big affair in this quiet, small Western Maryland town.

"It's the most important holiday in Sharpsburg -- next to Christmas," said Jan Wetterer, a town resident who is a member of the committee that organized yesterday's 127th annual parade. "People traditionally get everything in order, and then they gather, watch the parade and have picnics."

They expect crowds here.

And crowds come.

Some townsfolk estimate that as many as 10,000 people lined the flag-draped streets of this picturesque Washington County town -- made famous by the bloody Civil War battle called Antietam -- to mark one of the country's most hallowed holidays each year.

Sharpsburg's ceremonies were similar to those this weekend in hundreds of other places across America, with wreath-layings in cemeteries, patriotic and reflective speeches, concerts and parades.

Besides all the flags, red, white and blue banners hung from utility wires over Main and Mechanic streets. Churches and other organizations sold hot dogs and soda.

The hourlong parade consisted of more than 60 units -- antique cars, marching bands, floats, fire trucks, clowns, Civil War re-enactors, and politicians who threw candy to the crowds along Main Street.

Just before the parade began, members of Sharpsburg American Legion Post 236, local officials and guests honored the town's fallen sons during a wreath-laying ceremony at the town square.

Sharpsburg's Memorial Day events, dating to 1867, are among the nation's oldest. The town's annual parade features, from a nearby mountain town, the oldest active civic band in the nation -- the Rohrersville Band, organized in 1837.

And this year, actress Mary Tyler Moore was the parade's grand marshal.

Ms. Moore's traveling to an out-of-the-way place like Sharpsburg as a parade marshal was not as strange as it might sound. Her great-grandmother lived and died in Sharpsburg. She was a nurse during the Civil War and came to the town some time later, after her husband died and she was destitute, said George Tyler Moore, the actress' father.

Ms. Moore attracted attention yesterday, including whispered observations such as as, "Isn't she pretty?" "Oh, she's just so cute." "She's precious," whenever she stepped from a limousine that escorted her to Decoration Day events.

Later, after a brief ceremony at Antietam National Cemetery, she autographed a drum belonging to the 105th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Wildcat Regiment Band, that broke during the parade. She posed for pictures, signed other autographs and performed some famous lines from two of her television shows: "Oh, Rob!" and "Mr. Grant."

During the ceremony, Ms. Moore said that "All my life, I've heard of the charm" and people of Sharpsburg. She said the area gave her a sense of tranquillity, despite knowing what happened on the Antietam battlefield.

She was escorted by her husband, Robert Levine, a New York cardiologist, and her father.

Decoration Day in Sharpsburg is more than a parade, though. The day is steeped in tradition and nostalgia.

Each year, for example, fifth-graders from Sharpsburg Elementary School plant some 5,000 American flags on the graves of soldiers from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War.

Sharpsburg's streets are paved now, a few buildings have been added and a few have vanished, but since 1867, those wanting to be part of Memorial Day have walked the same route along Main Street from the town's western end, up the hill to the quiet Antietam National Cemetery.

Veterans, town folks and dignitaries made the first such march ++ one year before a national day of remembrance was proclaimed in 1868 -- to dedicate the National Cemetery and honor Union soldiers buried there.

The route is now shaded by a canopy of Norway maples planted a century ago to cool droves of Confederate and Union survivors of the Battle of Antietam who for many years returned annually to the site of the Civil War's bloodiest single day.

"I can remember there [being] as many as 25 veterans from the North and the South," says Wilmer M. Mumma, 74, a town author and historian.

"But the ravages of time got them, and their ranks thinned quickly. I only remember a couple riding in an open touring car in 1928."

Some residents just know that their Memorial Day events are the oldest in the country. However, many towns -- southern and northern alike, Westminster and Gettysburg among them -- make the same claim. Historians say it's difficult to document which really is oldest because many Decoration Day events began about the same time, in commemoration of the Civil War's dead.

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