Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Upstate New York and Memorial Day
The commemoration of Memorial Day has its roots in upstate NY. In between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes in what is known as the Finger Lakes region sits the quiet little town of Waterloo, NY. Waterloo holds the distinction of conducting the first community event to honor the fallen veterans of the Civil War.
Decoration Day, as it was called in Civil War times, had been celebrated all over the South as women decorated the graves of their glorious dead. These were for the most part independent ceremonies, and varied from town to town, and county to county throughout the south, until the efforts of Henry C. Welles, a druggist who resided in Waterloo, NY unified and dedicated a day of observation. Welles and local war hero General John B. Murray organized a single, cohesive day to honor those who had fallen in defense of the Union.
On May 5, 1866, flags flew over the village of Waterloo at half mast. Dressed in black mourning clothes, a procession led by General Murray marched to the town's three cemeteries and decorated the graves of the slain. A band accompanied the march with martial music along the evergreen-festooned avenues. The following year, Waterloo commenced with the same commemoration on May 5.
By 1868, other communities organized their own events on May 30, which has been the official day of observance in the North ever since. The South continued to mark their own events and days to honor the Confederate fallen, and it wasn't until WW1 when all soldiers who gave their lives on the battlefield were honored that the south officially observed Memorial Day on May 30.
One hundred years after General Murray and Mr. Welles set aside a day in May to honor the men who died in battle, through a series of events, NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the United States Congress, and President Johnson himself recognized Waterloo, NY as the origin of Memorial Day.