Monday, May 30, 2016

What is the Origin of Memorial Day?

Established in 1866, The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was a fraternal organization of Union veterans.  After the Civil War many local communities organized days of remembrance for the dead.  In 1868, Union veterans adopted May 30 “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” Many southern states recognized Confederate Memorial Day on a different date, reflecting lingering sectional bitterness.

Many veterans groups sprang up in the South after the war.  In 1889 a national organization called the United Confederate Veterans was formed.  The purpose of the group was not to stir up old hatreds but to foster “social, literary, historical, and benevolent” ends.  The United Confederate Veterans (U.C.V.) grew rapidly throughout the 1890s.  Some 1,555 local organizations (called camps) were represented at the 1898 reunion. In 1911 an estimated crowd of 106,000 members and guests attended one re-union.  Meetings continued until 1950 when only one member could attend.

The above photograph shows Union veterans marching at the 36th National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) in Washington, D.C. on October, 1902. The organization disbanded in 1956 with the death of the last Union veteran.

The last Union veteran, Willard Woolson died in 1956 at the age of 106. Woolson was a drummer boy.  The last Union combat soldier, James Hard, died in 1953 at the age of 109. Claims and counter-claims swirl around the age and status of the last veterans, both Union and Confederate. The last verifiable Confederate veteran is thought to have been Pleasant Riggs Crump (1847-1951), although several men subsequently claimed to be the “oldest” Confederate soldier.  Crump was from Alabama and served at the Siege of Petersburg.