Saturday, May 25, 2013

The First Decoration (Memorial) Day in Grand Rapids

"In the years following the Civil War, most residents of Grand Rapids wanted little to do with anything that reminded them of the horrors of the late war.  From time to time, veterans would gather to remember and renew old acquaintances, but no real military organization existed for several years following the war.  Grand Rapids was not alone in this respect.  For nearly a decade following General Lee's surrender at Appomattox, many states appeared to ignore the need for a militia.  Some states even went so far as abolishing their positions of state adjutant general and handing the duties over to other appointed officials.  The result was a slowly emerging militia that more resembled the disorganization and informality of the prewar citizen-soldiery than the trained and seasoned veteran corps of the late war.

"…in May of 1869, area veterans gathered in distinct groups for the first time.  The occasion was to honor their war dead on Decoration Day, a tradition begun several years back in the south when women decorated Confederate as well as Union soldiers' graves.

"Decoration Day was a rainy Sunday, and services were held at four cemeteries.  On the west side, Colonel Thomas Foote led a soldier's committee that met at Engine House No. 3 at one o'clock in the afternoon.  Together with about twenty other soldiers, they marched to the Greenwood Cemetery followed by a procession of citizens in carriages.  The solemn group used flowers to cover the graves of seven soldiers, concluding with an appropriate memorial service.

"Colonel Pierce headed up a group of soldiers that met at the old National Hotel at two o'clock before heading out to the Oak Hill Cemetery.  Despite pouring rain, an address was delivered by the Rev. Mr. Fletcher followed by the decoration of sixty-five graves.  Captain Coffinberry, founder of the Grand Rapids Light Guard, chaired the ceremonies at the Catholic Cemetery later that afternoon.

"The general ceremonies commenced at five o'clock beginning with a procession from Luce's Hall, led by General Innes and the Valley City Brass Band, to the Fulton Street Cemetery.  The group encircled the grave of the late Reverend Cuming, who had died of illness contracted while chaplain of the Third Michigan Infantry.  Thousands of veterans and citizens gathered despite a persistent rain."

From Baxter's History of Grand Rapids excerpted in Britten, David G., Lieutenant Colonel, Retired. Courage without Fear: The Story of the Grand Rapids Guard. Xlibris 2004