General Logan and General Order 11

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Franklin NY and Ouleout Valley Cemetery

Delhi NY and Woodland Cemetery

A Brief History of Decoration Day and Memorial Day


The tradition of adorning the graves of the fallen was already a practice in many communities in both north and south.  On May 5th 1868 General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the republic, issued General Order 11.  The preamble is beautiful:

The 30th day 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 church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.

If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from his honor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

Decoration Day was not issued as an official name until May 30th 1868. Each 30th day of May would be known as Decoration Day.  James Garfield, still a representative of Ohio at the time, delivered this address in Arlington Cemetery.  I nearly hear the music of trumpets as I read the closing section of his words.

Hither our children’s children shall come to pay their tribute of grateful homage. For this are we met to-day. By the happy suggestion of a great society, assemblies like this are gathering at this hour in every State in the Union.

Thousands of soldiers are to-day turning aside in the march of life to visit the silent encampments of dead comrades who once fought by their side. From many thousand homes, whose light was put out when a soldier fell, there go forth to-day to join these solemn processions loving kindred and friends, from whose heart the shadow of grief will never be lifted till the light of the eternal world dawns upon them.

You must consider the context here, as in 1868 the country was still deeply divided over the civil war, yet on this day the fallen soldiers of both Union and Confederate Armies were honored as 5,000 people decorated the graves.  A first step in healing.

While an established tradition in most regions, Decoration Dat was not an official national holiday and it would take decades to eventually adopt the practice throughout the union.  New York first established Decoration Day in 1873, and 1890 all northern states had adopted the date as well.  The south honored their dead on different days until after World War 1 and the honorees included all those who had given their lives in any US war.

Slowly the name Decoration Day became Memorial Day. And in 1971 the last Monday of the month of May was officially designated at Memorial, starting the tradition that most of us are familiar with today.

John A Lennox

Mr Lennox as I called him, was my neighbor from childhood until age 18 when I left for Michigan.  He served during World War I and World War II in different capacities.

He also served the communities of Delaware County.

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