From a variety of primary sources, and from Mount Vernon to the Far West and back again.Read More
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.
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.
Numerous locations and groups have claimed to have created Decoration or Memorial Day, but the first event at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868, seems to have trumped them over the years. And Julia Wilbur was there. She and several friends hired a carriage to take them across the Long Bridge to Arlington (although she is "vexed" that the carriage came at noon instead of at 11 a.m., as planned). She spends many pages of her diary describing the scene, complete with the military top brass "& other invited guests, including 54 orphans of soldiers & sailors." Somber music, flower-laying, and flags were the order of the day, as they remain today (minus the sales, "unofficial start of summer," and BBQs, of course). She worries that the elaborate bouquets laid on some graves meant that some graves had no flowers at all.
I need to make a return trip to Arlington to review its layout. In 1868 as Julia described it, the cemetery had a "principal" portion near Arlington House where the ceremony took place, and a smaller, older section in the northeast corner of the property. She wrote:
....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 prayer had 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 my bouquet from the White House on the grave of an “unknown”& a few others, separating it for this purpose....
She and her friends ("Miss E. & Miss S.") returned home at 6 1/2 PM, tired and apparently no longer vexed at the late start.