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The First Memorial Day

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

It was May 30, 1868, when the first national commemoration of Memorial Day was held when Union General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) set aside that day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, hamlet and churchyard in the land.” Hence the name, “Decoration Day.”

At the time, no GAR post existed in Indiana County, so it is uncertain how the day was celebrated here, but there is in existence an old postcard marked “First Decoration Day in Blairsville, Pa., 1868, in Market Square at Everett House.” It was later that year, on September 15, 1868, that Kearney Post No. 28, GAR, was organized in Indiana.

This was the only veterans’ organization in Indiana County for many years. The first post commander was Col. Daniel S. Porter. The other officers were: Henderson C. Howard, senior vice commander; John Weir, junior vice commander; William R. Black, adjutant; George A. McHenry, quartermaster; Dr. Robert Barr, surgeon; Theodore Henderson, officer of the day; and John S. Fleming, officer of the guard.

On May 29, 1869, Decoration Day came once again, and Post 28 invited the other fraternal orders in Indiana to participate. The Committee of Arrangements, consisting of George R. Lewis, S.A. Douglass, W.R. Loughry, Charles H. Row and William S. McLain, announced the following program:

10 a.m. - The Post will meet at its hall and march to the Presbyterian Church followed by the other orders.

At the church - Music on the organ titled “Lincoln’s Funeral March.” Reading of General Logan’s general Order No. 21, Headquarters, GAR, and General Order No. 4, Headquarters, Department of Pennsylvania. Prayer. “Star Spangled Banner.” by the choir. Orations by Col. D.S> Porter and the Rev. J.H. Young. Announce the order of procession to the cemeteries. Prayer.

11 a.m. - Form in procession and march to the cemeteries. A string band directed by H. Hargrave will halt at the head of each grave and play an appropriate march while the procession passes by on either side of the grave, each member dropping one or more flowers on the grave. Return to the halls of the respective orders for dismissal.

All merchants of Indiana were requested to close between 10 a.m. and noon. “It is hoped that so far as it is possible every one will join us in strewing the graves with flowers, or dropping a tear over those who, when their country called, did not refuse to die. Come one, come all, and make this one day sacred to the memory of our departed comrades.” From this date onward, similar ceremonies took place each year.

Indiana was unlike many other communities and counties, in that neither the town nor the community ever erected a monument to its Civil War soldiers. Saltsburg did on May 31, 1876, which still stands today in Edgewood Cemetery.

A few minutes after 3 p.m. on May 31, 1876, the 8th and 9th Divisions, 13th Regiment of the Pennsylvania National Guard took positions around the monument. Division officers and bands were on the east side, the rank and file on the south and west sides, and an “immense throng of civilians” on the north side of the monument.

The 8th Division band played “a solemn dirge, the melancholy notes of which seemed to impress the vast audience with the full import of the occasion.” This was followed by a prayer given by the Rev. Adam Torrence. Simon Portser, secretary of the cemetery board, read the list of contents of a box which had been sealed in the monument.

W.I. Sterett, the president of the cemetery board, announced the officers of the day, including Major Samuel Cooper, a veteran of the War of 1812, president; nine vice presidents and two secretaries. Adjutant General James W. Latta made brief remarks and unveiled the monument. General Harry White delivered the dedicatory address, followed by the Rev. Major Core and Col. C.W. Hazzard. Then the band played another selection and the Rev. W.W. Woodend pronounced the benediction.

At this time, Saltsburg did not have a GAR post, but the R. Foster Robinson Post 36 was organized the following year on July 5, 1877, and was the second GAR post in Indiana County. Findley Patch Post 137, Blairsville, organized June 20, 1881, with 99 charter members, and was followed soon by John Pollock Post 219, Marion Center, on August 20, 1881.

In the later years, several other GAR posts were organized, and to each of them fell the responsibility of observing Decoration Day. The pattern in all the communities for many years was similar to the one in Marion Center in 1883:

Wednesday, Memorial Day, was observed with marked attention at this place. John Pollock Post, No. 219, GAR, having made necessary arrangements, met at their hall at 9 o’clock, when details were sent to Gilgal, Mahoning and Washington. An audience was in attendance at each place, and after performing appropriate services, returned to this place.

At about 2 o’clock the Post, with a large number of citizens, assembled at the hall. At 2:30 the procession, containing from three to four hundred persons, formed and headed by the Marion Cornet Band, which discoursed suitable music, marched to the cemetery. After the usual services by the Post, the assemblage was addressed by Squire Kinnan of Gettysburg (now Hillsdale), after which the procession marched to the M.E. Church, where after music by the choir, W.L. Stewart, Esq., of Indiana, delivered the memorial address. The oration was well delivered and was listened to with unusual attention by the large audience. After the services in the church, the procession again formed and marched to the hall, where the audience was dismissed.”

As the ranks of the Civil War veterans thinned and aged, the responsibility for Memorial Day was assumed for some time by the Sons of Union Veterans and by their auxiliaries and then by the American Legion, VFW, and other veterans’ organizations.

Prior to the Civil War, there were no organized veterans’ groups in Indiana County. The GAR might, therefore, be considered the inspiration and the ancestor of our present veterans’ organizations, who have adopted much the same type of organization and in some cases naming their posts in the same way for ladders or deceased members. For example, Joseph A. Blakley Camp 227, Spanish American War Veterans, Indiana; Richard W. Watson Post 141, American Legion, Indiana; or John W. Dutko Post 7412, VFW, Homer City.

Another notable Memorial Day took place on May 30, 1925, when the Doughboy Monument in Indiana’s Memorial Park was dedicated. The controversial history of the park and the erection of the Doughboy Monument will appear in a future blog post.

The granite shaft was donated by the Farmers Bank of Indiana and the statue by Vernon Taylor. A parade formed at the YMCA (now the Indiana Free Library) and marched to the park. Richard W. Watson was chief parade marshal. At 10 a.m., John S. Fisher gave an address. The monument was presented and dedicated by Juliet White Watson and unveiled by the Gold Star Mothers. James W. Mack, president of Indiana Borough Council, accepted the monument. The Boy Scout Band provided music.

As we carry on the tradition of Memorial Day, it might be well to heed the admonition of General Logan in his first Memorial Day order in 1868: “Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

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