Published May 29. 2011 4:00AM Updated May 29. 2011 6:06PM
It was to be a day "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."
It was to be a day, said Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, of solemn remembrance. "Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds," he said. "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."
And yet, many have forgotten, and the day has become a day of festivities, the starting gun for summer fun.
But what was then called "Decoration Day" and we now call Memorial Day was born of the carnage of the Civil War.
At least 618,000 Americans died in the Civil War (some have placed the number closer to 700,000), more than have died in all the other wars this nation has fought combined.
In Connecticut, the war decimated the male population. One of every 10 men who went to war from here did not survive it. Compiled in 1889, the "Record of Service of Connecticut Men in the Army and Navy of the United States During the War of the Rebellion" reported that, altogether, 5,583 Connecticut volunteers died in the war.
Nationally, an estimated 1.1 million were injured or killed, and virtually every hamlet in the land had its share.
One of those hamlets was Waterloo, then a community of some 3,500 souls in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Waterloo lost 57 men in the war, and says it is the birthplace of Memorial Day, having conducted its first observance on May 5, 1866, and every year thereafter.
Some two dozen other communities dispute that.
Richmond, Va., Carbondale, Ill., Columbus, Miss., and Macon and Columbus, Ga., for example, all say they observed it first, and Boalsburg, Pa., claims it marked the day two years earlier than everybody else, which would mean it was observing the day in 1864, a year before the war ended.
But Waterloo is the only community that was officially recognized as the "Birthplace of Memorial Day" by a proclamation signed, on May 26, 1966, by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
"Others have tried to say they started it, but when it got down to the nitty-gritty, we were the only place that has marked the day every year since the first time," said Ted Young, the mayor of Waterloo. "There's one place out in Ohio that every year sends us a letter saying we can't claim to be the first, and we send them back a letter saying, 'Show us your presidential proclamation.'
"We've done it every year since May 5, 1866," Young said. "We were able to prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt. We do it now on the 30th. Whatever the 30th is, is the day that we do it, even if it doesn't fall on the three-day weekend."
The town's first observance was in 1866, but the idea, according to the town history, began with Henry C. Welles, the local druggist, in the summer of 1865. He brought the idea to Gen. John B. Murray, who, as it happened, was a good friend to Gen. Logan.
And it was Logan, then the head of the Grand Army of the Republic, who, in his famous General Orders No. 11, proclaimed in 1868 that May 30 should be the official day when the nation remembers its Civil War dead.
"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,'" Logan said.
"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."
A solemn ceremony
After World War I, Memorial Day became a day to honor not just the Civil War dead but all those Americans who died fighting in wars.
Waterloo, Young said, still marks the day itself with solemn ceremonies and none of the carnival celebrations that are often found in other communities.
The Friday, Saturday and Sunday preceding the 30th are days of celebration, with an essay contest, a motorcycle rally, a car show and whatnot, Young said, but on the 30th, the town's veterans and citizens go to the cemetery, where they have a wreath-laying ceremony and place flags on the gravesites of all the veterans.
"Then, later in the day at 6 o'clock we have the full military services," Young said. "The veterans march right through the village, just the veterans and a color guard, to the park, where there are prayers and speeches. ... It's a solemn day; it's to commemorate, not to celebrate."
This year, he said, because the 30th falls on Monday, those running the celebration have to remove all evidence of the festivities on Sunday night.
This is because Waterloo never wants to lose the true meaning of the day, Young said.
"We started it to pay respect to our fallen heroes. The celebration will be over Sunday by 5. They will strip the park down so the next day that park will be all ready to roll for the commemoration part," Young said. "I'm 65. I remember doing this as a child. And I'm a Vietnam veteran, so I'm a little piece of it."