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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Decoration Day

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, May 25, 2008

My grandmother always called it "Decoration Day."

 

It made no difference to her that it was now called "Memorial Day," because that simply wasn't what it was named in the first place.

 

The roots of "Decoration Day" can be traced to 1866, the year following the end of the American Civil War.

 

Various observances were ongoing to honor the lives lost in that war.

 

The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was founded that year in Illinois as a fraternal organization made up of veterans of the Union Army who had served in the Civil War.

 

General Logan, the commander of the GAR, issued an order that May 30 is observed as a "day of decoration" beginning in 1868.

 

That year, graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers, were decorated at Arlington Cemetery.

 

May 30 was selected as it did not coincide with the dates of any battles of the war, and would honor all who had died.

 

The use of the term "Memorial Day" appeared in the 1880s with frequency, but was not commonplace until after World War II as the day honoring veterans of all wars.

 

Since my grandmother was born in 1883, most of her life was indeed spent with "Decoration Day," and she wasn't for adapting to change.

 

Her father-in-law, and my great grandfather, Thomas Hall, influenced her observance of "Decoration Day".

 

By the beginnings of the Civil War, Thomas Hall was married with three children, and like most of America at that time, was a farmer.

 

As he recounted later, he disliked the idea of the Civil War.  His parents had arrived in the United States from England in 1803 to make a better life.

 

The Civil War divided families, and the loss of life impacted virtually every person in America.

 

Two of his wife's brothers were killed in battles in the South.

 

By the middle of the war, Thomas Hall had enlisted and reported to Columbus to begin his duty.

 

After the war ended, he returned to the farm with his tattered uniform.

 

The first thing he did was to assemble the souvenirs of war, and take them into the nearby woods where he buried them, never to be discussed again.

 

If he joined the GAR, he never mentioned it; but every May 30 he decorated the graves in the neighboring cemeteries with flowers that he gathered from his farm.

 

My grandmother cared for him and his wife in their elderly years, and he shared his stories of the Civil War veterans and his respect for all who made the ultimate sacrifice.

 

Although Decoration Day was based on the Union Army, the observance expanded to include all veterans.

 

The GAR was a strong organization into the early 20th century.  The last Civil War veteran died in 1956, and the records of the GAR were moved to the Library of Congress.

 

The National Holiday Act of 1971 finally established Memorial Day as a national holiday on the last Monday of May.

 

Maggie Hall didn't care, it remained Decoration Day to her, and the words of her father-in-law remained to her own death.