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#153 Origins of Memorial Day and Early Observances at Norwich

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, This Week in History

Grand Army of the Republic veterans at the annual Memorial Day Parade in New York City, May 1922.

Several towns in the United States claim to have held the first ever Memorial Day observance; however, many historians trace its origins not to a town, but to a group of former slaves. Just after the end of the Civil War, a group of freedmen and women gathered on the grounds of an abandoned horse track (the former site of a Confederate prison) where more than 250 Union soldiers had died. According to an article published in Time in 2009, they honored the dead soldiers by removing their bodies from a mass grave, interring them in individual, marked graves, and erecting a fence around the spot with an archway over the entrance. Shortly after, “On May 1, 1865, some 10,000 black Charleston residents, white missionaries, teachers, schoolchildren and Union troops marched around the [former race course] singing and carrying armfuls of roses. Gathering in the graveyard, the crowd watched five black preachers recite scripture and a children’s choir sing spirituals and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”


Memorial Day observances on the UP in 1936.

Most historians agree that the annual observance officially began three years later, when Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed May 30, 1868, Decoration 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 churchyard in the land.” That year, Union Maj. Gen. James A. Garfield gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 citizens decorated the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

According to the Norwich Record, Norwich University began observing Decoration Day at least as early as the mid-1880s. As L.B. Johnson, one of four graduates in the Class of 1888, recalled, “We had some activities back in those days. One of these was a Decoration Day excursion to Chelsea, the corps being conveyed in large teams. It formed the chief feature of the day’s observance and parade at the Orange county shire and resulted in a bit of good advertising for the university. Several students entered from Chelsea the following year.” By 1914, Memorial Day had become part of Junior Week festivities at Norwich, and included a procession “to the cemetery and a salute of three volleys and taps.”

After World War I, Decoration Day evolved from its roots as a day to commemorate Civil War fallen to one honoring American military personnel who died in all wars. Observances in Northfield became quite elaborate, and involved the participation of veterans (or the sons and daughters of veterans) from all wars and a grand parade led by the Norwich Band. This was followed by a program of exercises town and at several cemeteries featuring prayers, readings, services, an address, and a salute. The day culminated in a dinner sponsored by Northfield’s two American Legion posts, featuring music by an orchestra.

The earliest photographs of a Memorial Day observance involving Norwich cadets show a 1929 procession heading down North Street toward Elmwood Cemetery—where President Edward Bourns and Gen. Alonzo Jackman are buried—and an image of veterans and townspeople at the wreath-laying ceremony.

Because graduation now takes place two weeks before Memorial Day, Norwich students no longer have an opportunity to participate locally; however, according to the National Moment of Remembrance Act, which was passed in 2000 for the purpose of reminding people of the true meaning of Memorial Day, at 3:00 p.m. local time, all Americans should “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.’”