On Monday, Americans will observe Memorial Day, although regularly scheduled events in Vincennes have been cancelled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The holiday originated in the years following the Civil War as a way of honoring the hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers who died in that conflict. For decades it was known appropriately as Decoration Day, since its aim was to decorate the graves of veterans with flowers.
It was the Grand Army of the Republic, a postwar Union veterans’ organization, that began the commemoration. On May 5, 1868, GAR Commander-in-Chief Major Gen. John A. Logan issued General Order No. 11, setting aside May 30 “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.”
A big observance, attended by some 5,000 people, took place at Arlington National Cemetery that year.
The reason the day was set in late May is really an obvious one, since that is when spring flowers would be in bloom.
There had actually been days when flowers were placed on the graves of Civil War veterans in both the North and South prior to 1868. The city of Columbus, Mississippi, did so on April 25, 1866. The custom became especially popular in the southern states.
Waterloo, New York, staged an official commemoration on May 5, 1866, and, 100 years later, in 1966, was given the designation of the birthplace of Decoration Day. Prior celebrations were considered informal and isolated events.
Although it took some time for Decoration Day to spread across the country, based on local newspapers from the era it was celebrated in Knox County in 1868, the same year it was formally declared. Oddly enough, early on, the day was not without partisan controversy. In 1869, George Greene, publisher of the Democrat-leaning Vincennes Weekly Western Sun, denounced the practice, calling it, “a ceremony borrowed from the rebels” and stated that the focus should be on the widows and orphans left by the war.
There wasn’t much in the way of Decoration Day celebrations in Vincennes through the 1870s. In 1880, there was a big commemoration in the city, with a procession to the cemeteries, speeches, and the decorating of graves by the young daughters of veterans, who were all dressed in white. In those years, there were two Vincennes cemeteries, the City Cemetery (later named Greenlawn) and Mt. Calvary, the Catholic cemetery. From that time on, Vincennes staged an annual program following much the same format.
Typical local ceremonies in the first decades of the 20th century were similar to what had come before. There was a parade from the GAR Hall (first located at Seventh and Broadway streets and later at Seventh and Seminary streets) to the cemeteries where ceremonies were held and flowers were spread on veterans’ graves. The flowers were still placed by children (flower girls), who carried roses, lilies, and other blossoms in baskets. Each grave was also marked with a small American flag.
The Francis Vigo Chapter DAR always had a wreath laying at the grave of their namesake.
Calls were put out for Decoration Day flowers and people contributed blossoms cut from their yards, gardens, and local parks. Harrison Park was filled with rose bushes and the first roses went for the cause.
Following World War I, all veterans who died in American wars were recognized on the day. Through the 1920s and 1930s, the number of Knox County Civil War veterans was rapidly dwindling. The last surviving local veteran, Alexander Bowen, died in 1941.
Of course, the Decoration Day custom of placing flowers at cemeteries evolved to include the decoration of all graves.
The peony, which blooms in May, came to be the flower of choice to place on graves. There was always an abundant local supply of the flower, since from early in the 20th century up into the 1960s Knox County was a big peony producer. Besides flowers for the local market, peonies, in the bud stage, were shipped as far as Chicago, Cincinnati, and New York.
The eventual decline of the peony as a big marketable flower can be attributed to the widespread use of artificial flowers, which have all but replaced live blooms as decorations on graves.
The parade to the cemeteries was eventually discontinued. Another tradition that has fallen to the wayside is a ceremony that was held at the Main Street Bridge and later the Lincoln Memorial Bridge, when flowers were dropped into the Wabash River to drift away on the current, as a means of honoring local naval dead.
It wasn’t until 1971 that Memorial Day was made a national holiday. At that time, it was moved to the last Monday in May, rather than the traditional May 30.
Brian Spangle can be reached at email@example.com.