On Monday, Americans will mark Veterans Day. This year the day has special significance since it marks 100 years since the origin of the holiday.
It was Nov. 11, 1919, that President Woodrow Wilson, recovering in the White House from a debilitating stroke he had suffered in early October, signed a proclamation declaring the day Armistice Day. The proclamation read in part: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations. …”
Exactly one year earlier, on Nov. 11, 1918, at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” fighting ended in the First World War. On that day, when the news was announced, the world erupted in joyous celebration. At Vincennes, church bells rang, factory and train whistles blew, and masses of people filled the streets making noise anyway they could.
A year later, on the Nov. 11 anniversary, when Wilson issued his proclamation, the city was mostly quiet, the day passing “without a flicker,” as one local newspaper described it. It wasn’t until 1920 that Armistice Day was officially observed locally. That year there was a big parade and a special commemoration at Harrison Park (now the site of Vincennes University).
Downtown Vincennes was decorated with flags and bunting for the day. The Old Cathedral’s historic bell sounded that morning and there was a special mass at the church.
Even though it was a chilly, blustery November day, huge numbers of people turned out to either watch or take part in a big afternoon parade. Businesses and schools closed for the second half of the day. At 1:30 p.m., church bells rang, and whistles blew signaling to parade participants that they should begin lining up. It was said that the sounds were reminiscent of the cacophony of Nov. 11, 1918.
The parade kicked off just after 2 p.m., headed by the American Legion Color Guard. It was truly massive, with all of the city’s veterans’ organizations and service clubs in the line of march. Some 60 to 75 uniformed World War I veterans took part. Former Mayor James House served as Grand Marshal and rode mounted in the procession. Perhaps the biggest presence walking in the parade was nearly all of the children from the city’s public and parochial schools.
The parade ended at the mounted Civil War cannon (the cannon stood about where the Louie O. Dayson Foundation and Alumni Center is now located, at 1009 N. Third St., but were removed in 1942), where a special program was held, concluding with a tree planting ceremony. The Knox County War Mothers had already planted a number of trees there, a combination of hard maple and oak trees, in memory of local men who had lost their lives in the war and a small flag was placed at the base of each tree. One more ceremonial tree was then planted as Knox County Circuit Court Judge and veteran Thomas Coulter read the men’s names. Each Gold Star Mother, those who had lost a child in the war, then tossed a red rose in the hole as it was filled in.
Although Armistice Day was marked annually from that time on, it was June 4, 1926 that Congress passed an official resolution calling for a yearly observance. It wasn’t until May 13, 1938 that Armistice Day was declared a federal holiday.
Finally, on June 1, 1954, 35 years after the establishment of Armistice Day, following the Second World War and the Korean War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill changing the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day, the purpose being to honor American veterans of all wars.
In 1968, the Uniform Holiday Act was passed, which moved some holidays to Mondays. The law went into effect in 1971 and Veterans Day was then observed on the fourth Monday of October. In 1975, due to opposition to the change, President Gerald Ford signed a law returning Veterans Day to the proper date of Nov. 11, which became effective in 1978.
Brian Spangle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.