The nation will celebrate its annual Memorial Day later this month, which begins the unofficial start of summer in the United States. And of course, here we know and understand the true meaning of the day and not that it just another holiday, for hot dogs, hamburgers, cookouts and family gatherings.
While preparing for our local Memorial Day celebrations where members of our local Veterans Council, VFW, and American Legion visit the town schools for the preparation of programs and then organize our annual parade, I knew the basic story of Memorial Day but decided to delve a bit deeper on how it got started.
Several towns and cities claim that they are the true birthplace of Memorial Day. However, did you know that on March 7, 1966, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller proclaimed the Seneca County village of Waterloo as the “birthplace of Memorial Day.”
Rockefeller said that Waterloo was the place for the “first, formal, complete, well-planned, village-wide observance of a day entirely dedicated to honoring the war dead.” He added, “The people of Waterloo are justly proud of this outstanding event in the history of their community.”
The first Memorial Day was celebrated in Waterloo was on May 5, 1866, although the plans for it started in the summer of 1865, right after the end of the end of the Civil War. Like many great ideas, it began with a simple thought.
Henry C. Welles, a local druggist, mentioned at a social function, that the people should honor the dead of the Civil War by decorating the graves of the soldiers that fell in battle to keep our nation whole. Welles’ brainchild died on the vine during the summer of 1865 but in the next spring, Welles again broached the subject with General John B. Murray.
Not much about Welles other than his idea about Memorial Day is known. He was born in Glastonbury, CT on May 13, 1821. He moved to Waterloo when he was just four years old He became a druggist, married and was a prominent member of the tiny village. His greatest achievement may have been his idea about Memorial Day which became known as Murray’s brainchild.
Murray was the Seneca County Clerk, a Civil War hero who left in 1862 as a Captain in the 148th New York Volunteers and returned after the war a Brigadier General. He loved Welles’ idea for the celebration. The two me quickly developed a plan and developed a committee to plan an event. In the town of Waterloo, all businesses were closed on May 5, 1866, and instead, the townspeople would devote the day to honoring the dead.
Waterloo was decorated with flags at half mast, draped with mourning black. Veterans, residents, and civilian societies all marched in a parade proudly, led by General Murray, as bands played the popular military music of the era.
Three impressive ceremonies were held at each of Waterloo’s cemeteries and each soldier’s grave was decorated. The town repeated the ceremonies the next year on May 5, 1867. In 1868, Waterloo joined with other communities in holding their observance on May 30th, in accordance with General Order No. 11 from General John Logan, of the Grand Army of the Republic.
It has been stated that the formal, dignified manner in how Waterloo observed the day set the bar for future Memorial Day observances across the country.
Many cities have laid claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day, Cities in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, even southern states as Alabama and Georgia claim to be the first where they decorated the graves of dead Confederate soldiers. But Congress put all of that to rest.
After Governor Rockefeller’s proclamation, Waterloo was recognized by the Congress of the United States when the House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously passed House Concurrent Resolution 587 on May 17th and May 19th, 1966 respectively. “Resolved that the Congress of the United States, in recognition of the patriotic tradition set in motion one hundred years ago in the Village of Waterloo, NY, does hereby officially recognize Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day…”
In the end, it really doesn’t matter which town did it first or who claims what in regards to where the birthplace of the day resides. What IS important and most of all is why we celebrate it. Today it is no longer just about our Civil War dead.
We honor our fallen heroes from every conflict from the Revolutionary War thru the still ongoing Global War on Terror. Freedom comes at a very steep cost, as Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is just one generation from extinction…”
The rows and rows of crosses and headstones stand in mute testament of the awful cost of protecting our freedoms. And we honor them and how it all began with the wonderful idea of Henry Welles and the tiny village of Waterloo.