In June, 1873, George Q. Cannon penned a few words about America’s newest holiday:
In this country national holidays, that is, holidays observed by the people of the whole country, are very few in number; hitherto there have only been two of them – the Fourth of July and New Year’s Day. Christmas Day does not seem to be thought near so much of in this country as in Europe; and there, New Year’s Day is not esteemed so highly as in this. But in the United States the great national holiday is the 4th of July, the anniversary of Independence Day – the day upon which, in the year 1776, the colonies composing the thirteen original States of the Union declared their independence and threw off the yoke imposed upon them by British rule. On that ever memorable day the most unbounded enthusiasm of the people of the whole country seems to be called forth, and almost every manifestation of joy and pleasure it is possible to think of is indulged in.
There seems to be a disposition now on the part of the government, and of the people generally throughout the country, to establish another national holiday, to be called Decoration Day. The origin and character of this holiday are gloomy. You know that, during the War of the Rebellion, many thousands of men were slain while fighting to preserve the Union. Well, each year, since the close of the war, the 30th day of May has been observed, by all the soldiers who took part in and survived the war, as a day on which, to show respect to the memory of their dead comrades, they have strewn flowers on their graves. The non-military portion of the people manifest a disposition to take part in the observance of this day; and there seems to be an inclination to include the graves of all soldiers who have died in any of the wars of the Union, and their memories will be honored and their graves strewn with flowers the same as those who were killed in the War of the Rebellion.
He concluded with this paragraph describing how the day had been observed in Salt Lake City:
The 30th of May, this year, was observed as a general holiday in this city. the stores were closed and business was suspended. A number of citizens, with a band of music, went to the cemetery at Camp Douglas, and when there they were joined by the officers and soldiers of the camp. Speeches were made in honor of the dead defenders of the Union, and then the graves of all soldiers buried there were strewn with flowers. The day was kept in the same way in all parts of the country, the ceremonies at some places being of an imposing character, and as the enthusiasm for the observance of the day seems to increase each succeeding year, it is very likely that, in addition to New Year’s and Independence Day, the people of the United States will henceforth include among their national holidays the 30th of May – Decoration Day.
Nice enough, no?
I cannot guess why GQC chose to summarize the day this way, omitting any hint to what else had passed …
Decoration Day – today’s Memorial Day – became very early the pet project of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the organization of Union veterans of the Civil War. The GAR adopted the holiday enthusiastically, encouraged its celebration by school children, urged cities and towns to close businesses by law, remonstrated against citizens who used the day for sport or recreation instead of solemn memorials, and took charge of official ceremonies on that day throughout the nation.
Decoration Day reached Utah surprisingly early, considering circumstances: Few Mormons had served in the Union Army, there were no classic Civil War battlefields in Mormon territory, and the few GAR members in Utah were those who had emigrated there after the war, either as Mormon converts who had given previous military service elsewhere, or, more commonly, Union veterans who had come to Utah to accept political appointments (eventually, virtually every non-elected political position in Utah from governor down to assistant postal clerks would be filled by non-Mormon GAR members – such patronage appointments were an easy way for government officials in the East to reward party service and encourage future political loyalty).
By 1873, only eight years after the end of the war, and four years after completion of the transcontinental railroad made travel to Utah easier, there were enough GAR members in Utah to promote an observation of Decoration Day. That spring a committee, which included several veterans and veterans’ wives, called upon community leaders and received cash donations; they also published “a cordial invitation to the citizens of Salt Lake City and vicinity to donate … all flowers and evergreens they can obtain for the purpose of decorating the graves of our fellow soldiers.”
At a planning meeting held on May 27, some portion of the Grand Army condemned Mormon participation in Decoration Day, claiming that the church was “disloyal,” with “principles and practices opposed to Republican Government,” that it was “self-evident that [Mormon] contributions were not made in good faith, but to subserve the ulterior sinister motives” of Brigham Young, who himself had donated $100, and that accepting such contributions “would be an insult to the memory of our fellow comrades.” They demanded that all Mormon contributions be returned.
Some GAR members announced that if the committee would return Mormon donations, GAR members and “Gentile” (non-Mormon) merchants would replace the funds. But other GAR members protested that they, or their wives, had acted in good faith in calling upon Mormon leaders, and reminded the meeting that advertisements had invited all citizens, without qualification, to participate in honoring the dead. The committee interpreted the proposed resolution as an insult to themselves.
The argument grew so heated that it “resulted in the withdrawal of Gen. Connor and the members of the Finance Committee from any participation in carrying out the published programme.” Before the commemoration was irrevocably abandoned, the committee held another meeting, at which they rejected the demand to return contributions, acknowledging that donations had been solicited and given “in the spirit of … patriotism … and in all cases the people have recognized the sanctity of the occasion to be celebrated.” The committee concluded that “in view of the good feeling manifested by this community [we] invite all of our fellow-citizens to participate in the celebration of Decoration Day.”
Despite this inclusive outcome, it would be many years before Mormon participation in Decoration Day was again actively solicited by the Grand Army of the Republic.
It was these little details that for some reason GQC glossed over in his description of Decoration Day events in Salt Lake City. Maybe he was right to do so – and maybe I’m wrong to recall them today at a time when we should be remembering only the generous services and sacrifices of the past.
But I don’t think – not really – that I’m wrong to recall this event. We had to fight for our place in this world. We even had to fight for our right to honor the dead and to participate in national holidays. We can’t take anything for granted.