by Nancy Christofferson
When the words “Memorial Day” are mentioned nowadays, visions of barbecues and picnics, long hot summer days, swimming and golf go dancing through one’s head. It is considered the first holiday of the summer season, ushering in vacation time and outdoor activities for both young and old.
The “holiday” in fact began as a commemoration of the more serious task of remembering and honoring fallen soldiers.
There are several versions of the origin of the day but they agree it was begun as a time to decorate the graves of Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. Thus, it was called Decoration Day. As late as 1966, the federal government officially recognized the first observance to have been May 30, 1868 when General, later President, James Garfield gave a patriotic speech in Arlington National Cemetery. Some 5,000 people were there to listen, and they proceeded to decorate 20,000 graves of Union AND Confederate soldiers.
It seems, however, the first was actually May 5, 1868 in Waterloo, NY [maybe]. In fact, New York was the first state to recognize Decoration Day as a holiday and other northern states gradually followed suit. Because of its connotation as a time to honor Union soldiers, most southern states ignored it until after World War I, when it finally became accepted as a time to honor all fallen American soldiers.
Huerfano County may have been ahead of her time in the celebration of Decoration Day. Because of the county’s numerous former Confederates, notably the Georgia Colony, and with her heavy concentration of Hispanic, German and Yankee residents, everyone pitched in together to make sure all United States military personnel were respected equally.
Decoration Day was planned by former soldiers for their fallen comrades. The day’s events included stirring speeches, prayers, songs and band music all designed to glorify the deceased and bring a surge of patriotism – if not a tear to the eye – to the listening crowd.
Most observances began with special church services, then a gathering of walkers, horseback riders and carriages which proceeded respectfully to the local cemetery. In La Veta, that meant the town cemetery rather than the Pioneer, since it was closer, but in Walsenburg the marchers visited both Masonic and south St. Mary cemeteries, making it a real hike. In 1902, for instance, the veterans decorated 24 graves on Decoration Day, including seven Confederate soldiers, in Masonic Cemetery and then nine more graves in St. Mary, all of which turned out to be those of Union men. During this era the commemoration was under the aegis of the G.A.R. or Grand Army of the Republic, but they were not loath to include their old enemies.
In 1900, the Civil War vets invited those just home from the Spanish-American War to join them in honoring other soldiers. All veterans were encouraged to wear their uniforms. All business houses closed during the memorial services both in the churches and the cemeteries.
Soon, school children were helping to decorate the graves and then the fraternal organizations began joining in. Decoration Day parades went from solemn processions to the cemetery to parades with floats and patriotic emblems emblazoned on wagons and carts. Always, a local marching band led the caravan of mourners to the graveyard.
La Veta took the whole thing very seriously, with her population of Union and Confederate very nearly divided equally. In 1898 the procession was said to be nearly a mile long. In 1899 there was no observance at all – the town was too busy dealing with a smallpox epidemic. In 1901 the whole proceeding was postponed due to a snowstorm. It would not be the last time.
Walsenburg’s veterans had gotten either too old or too tired to walk to both cemeteries, and as soon as cars began appearing around town around 1906, the veterans rode. By 1911 their parade featured Elks Club members, a mounted cavalry (probably of the Colorado National Guard), Slovenian marching bands and veterans of the Blue and Gray as well as the Mexican and Spanish-American wars.
Following the first world war, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled Veterans and American Legion chapters organized and took over the planning and execution of the observances. Of course, after that war, there were many more graves to visit.
All patriotism and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so about 1915 Walsenburg threw in a couple of baseball games with other cities, and races and contests for the younger set after morning services and procession.
And, since it was a rare day off for coal miners and farmers, a full slate must be appreciated, and the days’ solemnity was capped off with dances in various night spots, rural school houses and club rooms.
Decoration Day officially became Memorial Day in 1967, and it was changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May in 1971.
From a full day of patriotism and respect, Memorial Day is now observed with a Moment of Remembrance at 3 pm. With a barbecue to follow!