History of Memorial Day: Decorating Day began after the Civil War


Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1971, but its origins date back to 1868 when Decoration Day was set aside to remember those killed in the Civil War.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the only common thread was a sense of loss.

A frequently quoted estimate states that 620,000 Union and Confederate troops died in the interstate war.

But new research raises the death toll by more than 20% to 750,000.

More American lives were lost in the Civil War than in World War I and World War II combined.

The impact of the loss is magnified by the relatively small US population at the time, which was one-tenth the size it is today.

Many of the dead left behind widows and orphans.

At least two Tribune editors – Horatio Rembaugh and George Staniford – served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Staniford was an infantryman in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War in 1862, fighting in a Maryland cornfield near the banks of Antietam Creek.

After 12 hours of fierce fighting, 23,000 people are either dead, injured or missing. That’s about 5,000 people more than the population of Arroyo Grande, the fourth largest city in San Luis Obispo County.

The Battle of Antietam remains the bloodiest day in American military history.

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George Breck Stanford was master of the King David Masonic Lodge from 1887 to 1890. He was the founder of the Oakland Tribune and editor of the San Luis Obispo Tribune and other newspapers. Photos courtesy of King David Masonic Lodge of San Luis Obispo David Middlecamp [email protected]

Tribune editor Myron Angel trained for a year at West Point before leaving for the California Gold Rush in 1849. Many of Angel’s graduate classmates served as officers during the Civil War nearly a decade later.

Angel briefly helped raise a volunteer infantry company in California during the Civil War.

Tribune’s editors were generally pro-Union and Republican, and competing city papers often had southern sympathy.

Born in Tennessee, Hugh Hanks Doyle founded the San Luis Obispo Mirror in 1880. During the war, he worked as a printer at the pro-Confederate appeal of Memphis until Union troops took that city from the Tennessee.

Doyle then moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and witnessed Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s successful siege and capture of the Mississippi River Fortress.

The people of Vicksburg were reduced to eating their mules and living in caves to avoid bombardment. Vicksburg’s newspaper was printed on scraps of wallpaper as the siege cut off supplies.

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The barrel in San Luis Cemetery is marked Fred Steele Post no. 70 GAR (Grand Army of the Republic.) David Middlecamp [email protected]

Union General Frederick Steele led a division under General William T. Sherman during this campaign.

The people of San Luis Obispo would eventually form the Fred Steele branch of the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of Union veterans.

Steele’s brothers, George, Isaac and Edward owned 48,000 acres in San Luis Obispo County, including the Corral de Piedra Rancho.

The first indexed mention of Decoration Day in the Tribune was published on May 19, 1877, and quotes U.S. Senator Newton Booth’s speech at the Sacramento Pavilion.

The first full article on Decoration Day was published in the Tribune on May 24, 1879, 14 years after the end of the Civil War.

Staniford was then editor of the Tribune.

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Mr. Edward Tizzard – colloquially known as “Old Ned”, the bootblack – is the only member of the semi-military organization known as the Grand Army of the Republic, residing in San Luis Obispo.

It is the custom of this society on Decoration Day – May 30 – to visit the final resting place of Union soldiers and lay flowers on their graves.

This beautiful ceremony is observed throughout the United States, and it is gratifying to know that in those national cemeteries where the Union and Confederate dead rest side by side, the hand of affection bestows its floral tribute so freely upon the grave of he who wore the gray as he does on the grave of the dead of the Union.

Old Ned has been ordered by the commandant of his post to observe, by day, and to follow the custom of the Grand Army, if there are any soldiers buried in either of the cemeteries near this city.

Ned doesn’t know any of them and asks us to investigate for him.

If any of our readers know of the burial of former soldiers in this town, they will do Ned a favor by informing him of the fact.

We are free to affirm that if any are known, their graves will receive a floral offering as beautiful as any offering in the land on this memorial day.

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David Middlecamp is a photojournalist and third-generation Cal Poly graduate who has covered the Central Coast region since the 1980s. A career that began developing and printing black-and-white film now includes a drone pilot’s license FAA certified. He also writes the historical column “Photos from the vault”.


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