The 30th day of May, 1868, is 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. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but Posts and comrades will, in their own way, arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
– General Orders No. 11, Grand Army of the Republic
The Grand Army of the Republic – the premier fraternal organization for Union veterans of the American Civil War – came to Utah in 1872 in two forms: active duty military men stationed at Salt Lake City’s Camp Douglas and Beaver’s Camp Cameron, and discharged soldiers who had come to Utah either as miners or as appointees of the federal government. During the 1880s, Grand Army men would hold nearly every appointed office in the territory, from governor down to post office watchman, and there would be much friction – even the threat of armed confrontation – between the gentile veterans and the Mormons.
In the spring of 1873, however, when the Grand Army organized its first Decoration Day observance in Utah, that coming friction was unanticipated by the Mormons, and even by many of the veterans. In that year, although there were as yet no organized Grand Army posts, veterans living in Salt Lake City who considered themselves members of the Grand Army decided to decorate the graves of a few soldiers buried at Camp Douglas and hold a short ceremony at the cemetery there.
A committee was formed, with the following notice being inserted in the local newspapers, including the Mormon-published Deseret News:
The undersigned committee extend a cordial invitation to the citizens of Salt Lake City and vicinity to donate and furnish to said committee on the morning of the 29th inst., at Independence Hall, all flowers and evergreens they can obtain for the purpose of decorating the graves of our fellow soldiers.
While we are aware that the backward season will prevent the culling of such an abundance as has been obtained in former years, yet we earnestly hope that everybody will co-operate with us and bring all they can.
J.P. Taggart, Mrs. Judge McKean,
J.M. Moore, Mrs. G.B. Overton,
G.A. Black, Mrs. C.R. Gilchrist,
C.C. Clements, Mrs. Wm. Walker,
H.A. Sanger, Mrs. A.S. McKenzie,
G.V.M. Boutelle, Mrs. L.P. Sanger.
The response was favorable. Local people, chiefly Mormons, contributed flowers from their gardens. Some of them contributed cash to help defray the costs of celebration.
On the evening of May 27, the various Decoration Day committees met to make last minute arrangements for the celebration on the 29th. When the flower committee reported the donations made by prominent Mormons – Brigham Young himself had donated $100 when members of the committee called at his office – the proverbial hell broke loose. Mormons? Participating in a memorial to the honored dead of the United States?! Never!! Mormons were traitors! Uncle Sam had had to send an army to subdue them! Mormon “contributions were not made in good faith, but to subserve the ulterior sinister motives of said Brigham Young,” and “ the acceptance of said contributions would be an insult to the memory of our fellow comrades.” Ex-Confederates were welcome to participate, but not Mormons.
Members of the planning committee drafted elaborate resolutions rejecting Mormon flowers, cash, and participation. Gentile merchants pledged to make up any losses suffered by the return of Mormon cash. Patrick Edward Connor, former commander of Camp Douglas, called for the cancellation of all Decoration Day services unless Mormon donations were returned. Veterans called for active duty soldiers to be detailed to protect the ceremonies from the incursions of any filthy Mormons who might attempt to honor the glorious Union dead.
In the midst of the Grand Army furor and all the angry resolutions, some voices were unexpectedly raised in opposition to the general mood of the veterans. Mormon contributions should be accepted, they insisted. Not, of course, because it would offend the Mormons to return their donations, and not because Decoration Day should be a community celebration observed without regard to religious partisanship, but because members of the donations committee had called on the Mormons in good faith and solicited their contributions without realizing their mistake. Rejecting those contributions now would be an insult to the members of the committee. Not only that, but half of the committee members were ladies.
So the Grand Army calmed its ruffled feathers and contented itself with publishing insulting remarks in the newspapers, accepting the Mormon donations with poor grace, and only because to do otherwise would insult the committee members who had so foolishly called upon Mormon purses and gardens. The old soldiers met downtown and, wearing red, white and blue badges and accompanied by a band, marched to the tiny cemetery at Camp Douglas, where graves were strewn with flowers and speeches given by retired generals.
No Mormons participated.
Many years would pass before Mormons were permitted to participate in formal community observances of Memorial Day in Salt Lake City.
Don’t let this be a holiday downer. I offer it not to stir up old controversies, but as a reminder that we should not take for granted our participation in the Republic to which most of us owe allegiance, any more than we should take for granted the sacrifices of the men and women who created, preserved, and continue to protect that Republic. A happy and thoughtful Memorial Day to all.