When I was young, I knew spring was truly with us when the peonies in our garden bloomed and were gathered for Decorating Day.
Today the official name is Memorial Day.
In my youth, Memorial Day was the only day of the year when families visited cemeteries, tidied up the gravesites of ancestors and friends, and left flowers in remembrance.
This is where you learned the names of the predecessors and an older person would often tell you stories about them. It continues to be a quiet and comforting tradition.
The story behind the creation of this tradition is a bit more complicated.
The Civil War was the deadliest conflict in American history. By the end, after four years, more than 600,000 men had died in a country of about 30 million people. It was a devastating struggle.
During the war and soon after, groups of people from both North and South began decorating burial sites with spring flowers and holding memorial services at local cemeteries.
Shortly after the war, Union General John Logan became the leader of the Grand Army of the Republic – an organization of Union Army veterans. Recognizing the importance of remembrance, Logan issued a general order making May 30, 1868 a day of decoration to remember those who had died defending the Union. Over the years, the date has become an important national holiday with picnics and social gatherings to complement the decoration of cemeteries.
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It has also become a day of parades.
In 1922, the Columbus Parade became something to behold.
A local newspaper told the story:
“Awesome is always the annual appearance of Civil War veterans who gather to pay their respects to the nation’s honored dead, but Tuesday’s Memorial Day Parade was by far the most spectacular of its kind ever seen in Columbus. The thinned ranks of the Grand Army, augmented by the lively and fearless veterans of the world conflict and the heroes of the Spanish war, formed the largest part of the procession in which participated auxiliary organizations, scouts, girl scouts, fraternal and patriotic organizations.
“The sun smiled down on the veterans of three wars as they formed the line of march and walked away to pay their respects to those who had answered the final call and gone before them. Until the time of the parade , there was little activity on the main streets, but when the procession began, hundreds of people filled the sidewalks to catch a glimpse of the nation’s heroes as they passed.
“Commanded by Walton Weber with Colonel Robert Haubrick as Chief of Staff, the parade formed a line of march over a mile long. With the commanders at the head of the procession was a detachment of police, acting as an escort. … The members of the posts of the Grand Army and the Sons of the Veterans constituted the first division. … A detachment of troops from Columbus Barracks (now Fort Hayes) formed the official escort of the gray-haired veterans. Outstanding in this division was the old guard in uniform, aged but keeping perfect lines and showing the same spirit they had displayed when they left in 1961. … The Ninth Infantry Band provided music for the first division.
“Marching with a faster cadence than their comrades of previous wars, the veterans of the World War constituted the second division. … Outstanding in this group was the American Legion group in their new gray and red uniforms, 75 men, adding bright colors to the procession and making the liveliest music.
“In the third division… arose the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and the group of scouts. After that was the fourth division. … The 166th Infantry Band and the Cincione Band appeared in the Fourth Division. Included in the list of organizations making up the final group were the Columbus Council of Boy Scouts; Girl Scouts; Patriarch’s Militant Independent Order of Odd Fellows; Capital Lodge #34, IOOF; the loggers of the World Drum Corp; lumberjacks’ lodges; city fire detachment and the Romanian company Columbus.
“The parade moved from Broad and Third streets at 8:30 a.m. heading south on Fourth to State, west to High, north to Gay, east to Fourth, south to Broad and is at High, where the columns split up and the veterans took autos to the cemeteries.
“At Greenlawn, Mount Calvary and St. Joseph cemeteries, simple but impressive memorial services were held with the participation of veterans and their auxiliaries. The graves of dead soldiers were decorated early in the morning with flowers picked by public school children and shaped into bouquets by a committee of 100 female veteran auxiliaries.
“Flowers were strewn on the waters of the Scioto River during the morning by the Women’s Relief Corp in honor of sailors and marines who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.”
All in all, it was a memorable Memorial Day.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for Community news this week and The Columbus Dispatch.