One hundred and fifty-two years ago: At half past one on a sunny Sunday afternoon, May 30, 1869, the ringing of the bell in the old town hall alerted a large and growing crowd of Syracusans to the start of the city’s first decoration day celebrations.
The national celebration of Decoration Day – known as Memorial Day after America’s involvement in World War I – began in 1868. Inspired by a series of annual local ceremonies, including in Waterloo, New York, General John A. Logan, Commander- The Commander-in-Chief of the Great Army of the Republic, the country’s largest veterans’ association, said May 30 was reserved to honor the nearly 620,000 men who gave their lives to save the union and end slavery by placing flowers and ribbons on the graves of the fallen.
On that day, the nation’s most famous figures gathered at Arlington National Cemetery, a place that, like the nation, was completely transformed by the war.
Before the war, the 1,000-acre Arlington Plantation was home to US Army Colonel Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis, great-granddaughter of George and Martha Washington. Now, roughly seven years after Lee resigned command of the U.S. Army and took up arms against the United States, Lee’s confiscated property has been the resting place of over 15,000 men.
To honor them, Maj. Gen. James Garfield, a hero of the Battle of Shiloh, Ohio congressman and future President of the United States, offered a speech before the congregation began decorating the graves of these men, Garfield said. who “out of love for the land … had accepted death and thereby resolved all doubts and made their patriotism and virtue immortal”
Patriotic virtue abounded in central New York in the weeks following the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter.
In response, President Lincoln called on 75,000 volunteers to put down the emerging insurrection. Onondaga County was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic recruitment centers in all of New York State, sending nearly 13,000 men into battle over the course of the bloody conflict.
The remains of thousands of Union soldiers reside in cemeteries across the county, particularly in Syracuse.
Here in Syracuse, Decoration Day ceremonies were organized by a formidable group of local union veterans, including Maj. Gen. John Peck, a graduate of West Point and Commander of the Department of the East; Maj. Gen. Henry Barnum, who, as commanding the 149th New York Infantry, fought in numerous battles including Malvern Hill, Gettysburg and Lookout Mountain; and Brevet Brigadier General Gustavus Sniper, whose exploits during the Siege of Petersburg earned him permanent fame and an equestrian statue on the north side of Syracuse.
These respected gentlemen urged their fellow citizens to assemble on Hannoveraner Platz and march in a large procession to five of the city’s tombs. Behind the generals and other commanders who acted as marshals for this patriotic parade was a detail of the police, eighteen strong, nine marching side by side.
The Syracuse City Band came next, playing lamentations and making way for the carriages that carried disabled veterans unable to march on their own. behind them marched hundreds of veterans who had not lost their limbs to freedom.
Between this sea of blue woolen uniforms and the civilian demonstrators was the flower cart with the decorations that were to be put up that day.
The procession moved north up Salina Street to Pond Street and St. Joseph’s Cemetery (now defunct), where General Sniper entered to lay flowers on twelve graves. From there the parade went down Lodi Street to Rose Hill Cemetery, where Colonel Nicholas Grumbach visited the thirty graves there.
They went ahead laying flowers on the grave of Moses Rothschild in the Jewish cemetery as the crowd moved to Renwick Ave. and went to the nineteen graves in St. Mary’s Cemetery marked by Colonel Silas Titus.
The procession continued to Renwick for its final destination, Oakwood Cemetery, where fifty-five headstones were adorned. Among these was the grave of Charles Highgate, an 18-year-old “mulatto” from Syracuse who joined the 185th Infantry of NY under the command of General Sniper. Highgate died on April 2, 1865, of wounds sustained in Quaker Roads, Virginia, a week before Lee’s surrender.
Almost 8,000 people had gathered amid the bucolic serenity of Oakwood’s Dedication Valley. In a scene of sweet poetic justice, Rev. Samuel J. May, a man who a few years earlier had been burned in an effigy in Hanover Square for his outspoken support for abolition and equality, addressed this sea of humanity.
“We pray your holy spirt,” May began, “to impress this deep into the ears of all of us… to stand over the graves of some of the many thousands in our country brought to their premature death by the signal injustice of our nation . “Possibly the word slavery need not be mentioned. Those gathered knew it.
He implored Heaven: “O God of the oppressed! Never let the cause of our terrible civil war be forgotten. May it be told to our children and the children of our children of the newest generation; As vast and powerful as our republic may be, it will never again trample on human rights. ”
When he ended, he called on the crowd to act virtuously. “Let us not be content with decorating their graves … may we all decorate our own characters with these masculine and feminine virtues that alone can give stability to our nation.”
Over a century and a half later, the invocation of the good Reverend May rang out in the ears of a fearful nation.