“Honoring the Dead.” Most veterans know this as the purpose of Memorial Day. It isn’t “Veterans Day,” nor is it, “the “unofficial start of summer,” though many confuse Memorial Day with these events. Its sole purpose, going back to the origin of the holiday in 1865, is to honor the patriotic dead by decorating the graves. Since then, our way of honoring our military’s dead has expanded in many ways.
A DAY FOR REMEMBERING
My buddie, Charlie P. sent me a photo of his 1942 Ford Jeep this past weekend. He wrote, “Got my 72-year old GPW running today. Nothing says, ‘Happy Memorial Day’ like driving a WWII Jeep.”
In fact, each of us probably has our own method of remembering the dead. In addition to participating in a parade or two, my partner and I spend the weekend going around to various cemeteries. Though we might pull a few weeds, straighten some bronze markers, and place the odd flag or two, we just spend time walking, reading and photographing stones. As we do that, we use our tablets to look up details of the veterans who are buried there.
This past weekend, we visited half a dozen cemeteries between Bayport and Hastings, Minnesota. As we walked, we encountered various markers for veterans that picqued our curiosity. For example, in the nearly forgotten Mount Hope Cemetery in the hills above Bayport, Minnesota, we found the badly decayed obelisk erected in the memory of Simon Putnam, the Civil War chaplain of the 3rd Minnesota Infantry.
A bit of Googling on her tablet, and my partner explained (as I photographed), “Putnam enlisted in 1863 and served until 1864 when he died of disease. He and his wife, Julia, lived in what is known as the ‘Little Red House’ in Afton, Minnesota’s old village area. He held Congregational Church services in his living room and taught Sunday school classes in his kitchen until a school was built in 1858.” She discovered he was the 3rd Minnesota’s third chaplain, having enlisted in 1863—the same year his son had died while serving in the same regiment.
As I shot photos, I could make out a second inscription on the stone. I thought it looked like, “Maytin” or “Mayon.” After a few moments, Diane connected the dots as she read from her tablet, “His son Myron, enlisted in the 3rd Minnesota when he was 16 years old as a drummer. He died of consumption in 1863, at the age of 18.”
Though the cemetery is a bad state of neglect, we tried to tidy the area around the two veterans’ marker. We did our best to “honor the dead.”
In Bayport’s Hazelwood Cemetery, we found a limestone marker with two cast iron GAR plaques. The privately carved stone was for “N.C. Gould” but did not contain any unit information—just “G.A.R.” carved at the base.
Standing for “Grand Army of the Republic,” we knew he was a Civil War vet. Out came Diane’s tablet, and the search began. It took a bit of hunting before she identified the soldier as Nathan C. Gould, a private in Company G, 22nd Wisconsin Infantry.
Armed with that crucial data, Diane found an excerpt of a letter Nathan had written to his parents in May 1863. In it, he assured them he would not do anything to get himself “disgraced if I can help it… and I did not come into the army to disgrace myself or [my] folks.” Standing at his grave, we repeated Nathan’s promise for him, 151 years after he made it to his parents.
While 19th-century tombstones tend to have more clues to military service, we don’t restrict ourselves to these. In fact, one flat stone in the Bayport Cemetery required a fair amount of sod removal before we could make out the inscription: “Gustave Robert Dahlin / Minnesota / 1st Lieutenant Infantry / World War I & II”.
Busy on her tablet for a moment, Diane soon read aloud, “Gustave Dahlin reported for duty and was inducted into service on February 10, 1941. His unit was the 135th Infantry, 34th Division.”
A couple of finger taps on her screen later, Diane added, “During WWI, Dahlin was a private, first class, in the machine gun company of the 1st Minnesota National Guard. He was mustered into service June 23, 1916.” This unit had been sent to Camp Llano Grande near Mercedes, Texas, in 1916. Although they never saw fighting, their border duty helped prepare them for a much bigger challenge: World War I.
Barely home from Texas, the Minnesota Guardsmen were again mobilized when the United States entered the war against Germany in April 1917. Most went directly to Camp Cody near Deming, New Mexico, for training with a newly-organized 34th “Sandstorm” Infantry Division.
So, Gustave Dahlin had been a “Red Bull” in both wars. Though his stone didn’t record it, technology allowed us to reconstruct the details of Gustave’s service
FOR OUR MILITARY DEAD
During a social gathering in the village of Waterloo, N.Y., in 1865, the local druggist suggested that one way to honor the Civil War’s dead War was to decorate their graves. The following year, he mentioned this idea to General John B. Murray, who was then Seneca County’s Clerk. General Murray embraced the idea, and a committee was formed to plan a day devoted to honoring the military dead.
The residents of Waterloo quickly embraced the plan. They decorated soldier’s graves with wreaths, crosses and bouquets. In addition, they adorned the village streets with flags, evergreen boughs and black mourning streamers.
On May 5, 1866, civic societies joined the procession to the three existing cemeteries and were led by veterans marching to martial music. At each cemetery there were impressive and lengthy services including speeches by General Murray and a local clergyman. The ceremonies were repeated the following year, on May 5, 1867.
The first official recognition of Memorial Day, however, was issued by General John A. Logan, first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. This was General Order No. 11 establishing “Decoration Day” as it was then known. The date of the order was May 5, 1868, exactly two years after Waterloo’s first observance. Logan declared Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
Today, cities in the North and the South claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. Both Macon and Columbus, Ga., claim the title, as well as Richmond, Va. The village of Boalsburg, Pa., claims it began there two years earlier. A stone in a Carbondale, Ill., cemetery carries the statement that the first Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866. Carbondale was the wartime home of Gen. Logan.
Approximately 25 places have been named in connection with the origin of Memorial Day, many of them in the South where most of the war dead were buried. It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars.
In May 1966, however, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo as the “Birthplace of Memorial Day.” This recognition was long in coming and involved hours of painstaking research to prove the claim. While other communities may claim earlier observances of honoring the Civil War dead, none can claim to have been so well planned and complete, nor can they claim the continuity of observances that Waterloo can.
Five years later in 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was in that year the holiday was assigned to the last Monday in May.
To ensure the sacrifices of America’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.
The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. As Moment of Remembrance founder, Carmella LaSpada, said, “It’s a way we can all help put the ‘memorial’ back in Memorial Day.”
However you choose to do it, honor our Veterans this Memorial Day,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine
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