Memorial Day marks its 150th: How Elgin observed the first tribute to those who served

  • Gen. John A. Logan, taken by Civil War photographer Matthew Brady.

    Gen. John A. Logan, taken by Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. Courtesy of National Archives

  • Elgin's Memorial Day programs have been planned by the Elgin Patriotic Memorial Association since 1892. This photo from 1910 shows an Elgin Memorial Day observance at Elgin Cemetery, now the site of Channing Memorial Elementary School.

    Elgin's Memorial Day programs have been planned by the Elgin Patriotic Memorial Association since 1892. This photo from 1910 shows an Elgin Memorial Day observance at Elgin Cemetery, now the site of Channing Memorial Elementary School. Courtesy of Elgin Patriotic Memorial Association

  • The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) memorial was dedicated in 1876 and remains a focal point of Elgin's Memorial Day programs at Bluff City Cemetery.

    The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) memorial was dedicated in 1876 and remains a focal point of Elgin's Memorial Day programs at Bluff City Cemetery. James Fuller | Staff Photographer, 2016

  • As part of Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, President John F. Kennedy (at right, assisted by Sergeant Allen Eldredge) places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

    As part of Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, President John F. Kennedy (at right, assisted by Sergeant Allen Eldredge) places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

 
Updated 5/24/2018 6:37 AM

May 30, 2018, marks the 150th anniversary of the first Memorial Day. Begun in the aftermath of the Civil War, this day of remembrance was started by Gen. John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Northern veterans organization, when he issued his "General Order No. 11" in May 1868.

In this directive, Logan asked that May 30 be "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." Originally known as "Decoration Day," Logan's actions only formalized tributes that had been going on in both the North and South since before the end of the Civil War.

 

Newspaper accounts of the time show the largest observance in 1868 was in Arlington Cemetery. This ceremony included President Grant, General Logan, and various other dignitaries. The program also included an address by Gen. James A. Garfield who would later become the nation's 20th president. Small flags were placed on almost half of the graves in the cemetery.

In Madison, Wisconsin, newspapers reported a milelong line of carriages in route to the cemetery. At Indianapolis, Indiana, a cemetery program drew 15,000 people while one in Memphis, Tennessee, attracted 5,000 people.

Newspapers also recorded other programs -- generally in larger cities -- in Des Moines, Iowa; Toledo, Ohio; and Springfield, Illinois. In the east, observances took place in Baltimore, Maryland; Richmond, Virginia; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Elgin newspapers report that the city took part in the first Memorial Day with services held at Elgin Cemetery, now the site of Channing Memorial Elementary School on the city's near east side. The event was attended by 2,000 people. This turnout represented nearly one-third of the population in Elgin at the time -- then home to the fledgling but rapidly growing Elgin National Watch Company.

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"Upon this site where we now stand will be erected a memorial honoring those who gave their lives fighting for our country," said a Methodist minister who was Elgin's first Memorial Day speaker. Three years later Elgin Township appropriated $3,000 for a memorial honoring the 68 Elgin men who gave their lives in the Civil War.

Completed in 1876, this memorial of marble sat in a natural amphitheater area of the cemetery. In 1920, it was moved to Bluff City Cemetery where it remains as a focal point of Elgin's Memorial Day programs.

In his General Order No. 11, Logan said of the holiday that it was his "hope that it be kept up from year to year." The Illinois orator offered similar feelings about the day's permanence when he remarked, "The sons of future generations will reunite to pay undying memorial."

Over the years Decoration Day became known as Memorial Day. It also now honors military personnel who died at any time in the nation's history.

Arlington National Cemetery remains today the focal point of the nation's Memorial Day ceremonies, where the president places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Elgin offers four programs which draw a combined attendance of over 1,000 people.

Communities elsewhere offer tributes of their own. The reading of Logan's Order also remains as a prominent part of many programs.

And, a century and a half after he spoke them as part of his first Memorial Day address, the words of Garfield, "For love of country, they accepted death," remains the central focus of the day's programs as we pay tribute those who offered the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

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