Decoration Day at Arlington Cemetery, 1868

Three years after the Civil War ended, the Union veterans group, called the Grand Army of the Republic proposed May 30 as Decoration Day, a day to decorate the graves of military dead. A large observance took place at Arlington Cemetery.

1873 Ceremony at Arlington Cemetery. Stereograph in the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Collection.

1873 Ceremony at Arlington Cemetery. Stereograph in the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Collection.

Flowers, Prayers, Song

May 30, 1868, fell on a Saturday. Julia recorded the afternoon across four pages of her diary. Here are a few excepts.

In Washington that morning, Julia Wilbur joined a "Ladies Committee" to make wreaths, crosses, and bouquets out of flowers. True to form,

A basket full of flowers from the Ex. Mansion I made into bouquets & brought one away to decorate if opportunity offered some Colored Soldier’s grave.

With some friends, she rode in a carriage across the river, joining thousands of others. By the time they arrived,

It was 2 P.M. & Gen. Garfield had begun to speak from a platform extending from the Piazza. Here in front of the Platform were seats for a great many. Many drove up as near as possible & remained in their carriages & thousands stood or strolled around. The Piazza was decorated with flags, & badges of the different Corps. were suspended on a rope extending from the Flag staff to the roof of the Mansion

In addition to speeches, sad music, prayers, poetry, and a reading "Lincoln's address at Gettysburg, Nov. 1863," there were--

Seated in front were Gen. Grant & staff & gen. Long, & Gens. Howard & Hancock & Ekin & other invited guests, including 54 orphans of soldiers & sailors...

A procession led by the children strew flowers on graves.

Nothing happened to mar the solemnity & beauty of the scene. It was unlike anything I ever witnessed before. Many a tear fell on those graves. There was no unseemly noise or mirth in all that vast crowd, 5,000.

An Unofficial Remembrance

Yet (why should this be a surprise?), the official ceremony only passed by white soldiers' graves. Julia went to the what she said was the northeastern part of the property (now called Section 27) where U.S. Colored Troops lay:

The programme did not seem to apply to this portion of the Cemetery but I understood that a few persons white & colored had been there with flowers & a prayed been offered. I was not satisfied to leave without going there. We drove there & entered. The grass had not been cut, & it is very tall. A small part seemed to be allotted to colored soldiers & flags & flowers were on all these graves.Here I left a bouquet from the White House on the grave of an “Unknown” & a few others, separating it for this purpose. It seems a pity that a part of the Cem. must be detached from the rest.

Julia commemorated Decoration Day many more times, but the first time probably meant the most to her.

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