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The Mormons’ First Memorial Day

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 31, 2010

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.



11 Comments »

  1. Bravo, again.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 31, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

  2. I’ve been wandering through the SLC Cemetery courtesy of Google Maps street view, today. I miss being in Utah and going out to decorate family graves. I learned so much Utah history on those outings.

    Comment by Mina — May 31, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

  3. Mina – visiting the Salt Lake City Cemetery on Memorial Day was a huge tradition for my mother’s parents, but not something I ever did. It seems like a very Salt Lake City thing to do; I don’t recall seeing any evidence of people visiting the cemeteries around here when we were out earlier in the day. Thinking about the traditional Memorial Day cemetery visit makes me miss my grandparents since I’ll be visiting their graves for the first time when I’m in Salt Lake this summer.

    And back to the topic of the GAR; a cousin and fellow Keepa reader put up a blog post a few days back that mentioned a GAR parade in Washington DC. The parade was attended by a common ancestor, John Hamilton Morgan, Civil War soldier, Utah educator, former president of the Southern States Mission, one of the Presidents of the Seventy, and state legislator. He was involved in Utah’s attempts at statehood but died in 1893. I hope Bessie doesn’t mind if I link to her post here. It has some pictures of a recent GAR memorial in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

    Comment by Researcher — May 31, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

  4. I wondered about how “Salt Lake” that tradition was, Researcher, so thanks for your comments.

    It was a family tradition I really loved because the SLC cemetery was so beautiful and it was interesting to learn about family members I never knew, as well as “visit” with those I did. There are a cluster of family graves in the SLC cemetery near some red steps that as a child, I thought very unusual and poetic.

    I loved seeing the old, weathered sandstone grave markers and there were even wooden ones still extent. The pioneer past never seemed so close as on Memorial day.

    It was also in the SLC cemetery that I first learned about the Japanese camps, since I asked my parents about the “strange” group of graves with not just flowers, but food left on them.

    Of course, I also picked up on other lore by recognizing names from church or Utah history.

    As I was “visiting” today, I found I remembered my way around the cemetery pretty well. Of course, I was there in 2007 when I was home doing research while on sabbatical. I spent a lot of my time in the cemetery though, thinking and walking. My maternal grandmother, a woman who was everything to me, was dying, and when I wasn’t with her, or working in archives, I was sitting in the cemetery playing Lyle Lovett’s cover of “Flying Shoes” on the car stereo and wishing…well, wishing all kinds of things.

    I’m sure your visit with your grandparents this summer, Researcher, will make some beautiful memories.

    Comment by Mina — May 31, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

  5. Thanks Ardis! Great post and interesting to see how the Saints in Utah were affected.

    In my hometown and “Mormon colony” in Star Valley, Wyoming, we went to 3 different cemeteries (different wards had their own graveyards back in the day) to clean and decorate our great-grandparents graves and other relations’ headstones. We lingered longest in the biggest one in Afton WY which we went to last since that’s where everyone would meet mid-afternoon and then go to the nearby picnic ground for lunch.

    Did you all know that some Southern states have “Confederate Memorial Day”? It’s on different days in the different states because they wanted their “own” holiday and not the “Union’s” day apparently.

    It’s a state holiday on April 26th in Georgia (and Florida and Texas) although only my husband’s family and state government observes it anymore. But it used to be a big deal in the 20′s and 30′s according to my aged mother-in-law (back when the Confederate soldiers they honored were their grandparents and not great-greats they didn’t know personally.)

    Allison in Atlanta

    Comment by Allison — June 1, 2010 @ 7:41 pm

  6. so, please excuse this foreigner’s ignorance, but did your Memorial Day start as a way of remembering the dead of the Civil War, and has since been extended to the fallen of all subsequent wars?

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — June 2, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

  7. Yes, Anne.

    It goes a little broader than that, in that it’s the traditional day to visit family graves, clean up cemeteries, take flowers, etc., for all loved ones, regardless of military connection, but it is still basically a day to remember the dead who served in the military (contrasted with Veterans Day on November 11, which is chiefly to honor the living).

    Although few people follow it anymore, one Memorial Day tradition calls for American flags to be flown at half-staff in the morning as a sign of mourning, then raised at noon to full staff as, I suppose, a sign of victory. The graves of vets are also usually decorated with a flag — veterans’ groups and cemetery caretakers usually keep lists of vets in a given cemetery, and either the cemetery (as part of its perpetual care) or a community group furnishes the flags. This was actually a rather high concern on my father’s list — he wanted to be sure there was a flag on his grave every Memorial Day. There is. (There is also a little display on my living room table, with the flag that covered his casket, a pair of the white officers’ gloves worn by his funeral honor guard, and a shell fired in the salute at my mother’s funeral (both my parents served during WWII).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 2, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

  8. With five months’ head start, I say we should get guest posts from our international cohort on their celebrations of Armistice Day (or Remembrance Day, or whatever the current term is)–either the Canadians or the Brits would be fine, but both would be better. My Canadian daughter tells me that poppies in lapels are ubiquitous in early November–which makes me think that they make more of that memory than we Americans do. And, of course, we should all be pleased to hear of some Mormon connection too.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 2, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

  9. We also wear poppies in November leading up to Armistice Day (11 Nov) and Remembrance Sunday (second Sunday in November), Mark- they are sold everywhere (even in schools) in aid of the Royal British Legion, which helps the soldiers families of injured and killed servicemen from all conflicts. I’m not, however, allowed to buy one, on pain of being haunted by my maternal grandmother, but the story behind that annual trauma will have to wait for a comment in November :-)

    Thank you for the explanation, Ardis. How proud you must be of your parents for their service.

    And, btw, ‘international cohort’ sounds a bit Spanish Civil War to me, for some reason!!

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — June 2, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

  10. Got to this post a little late, but when our family still lived in Utah, we would go to a couple of cemeteries on Memorial Day, and my wife and her dad would talk about some of those ancestors. Now that we have moved to the Seattle area, we currently have no graves here to visit. On my last visit to Utah in April, though, we made an effort to visit the Plain City cemetery where several of my ancestors are buried.

    On a side note, the spring and summer of 1873 were tense times in northern Utah. At one point, Brigham Young was under house arrest, and I believe it was also the time the Ann Eliza Young divorce was coming to a head. George Q. Cannon showed remarkable restraint in his comments.

    Comment by kevinf — June 2, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

  11. My guess is that Gen. Patrick Connor, who spent most of the Civil War at Fort Douglas denouncing Mormon “disloyalty” and hoping for an excuse to put an end to Church control of territorial politics, was instrumental in trying to exclude the Church leaders and members from participation.

    Comment by Steve Florman — May 29, 2012 @ 9:59 am

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