In 1865, Henry C. Welles, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, NY, mentioned at a social gathering that honor should be shown to the patriotic dead of the Civil War by decorating their graves.
In the Spring of 1866, he again mentioned this subject to General John B. Murray, Seneca County Clerk. General Murray embraced the idea and a committee was formulated to plan a day devoted to honoring the dead.
Townspeople adopted the idea wholeheartedly. Wreaths, crosses and bouquets were made for each veteran's grave. The village was decorated with flags at half mast and draped with evergreen boughs and mourning black streamers.
On May 5, 1866, civic societies joined the procession to the three existing cemeteries and were led by veterans marching to martial music. At each cemetery there were impressive and lengthy services including speeches by General Murray and a local clergyman. The ceremonies were repeated on May 5, 1867.
The first official recognition of Memorial Day as such was issued by General John A. Logan, first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. This was General Order No. 11 establishing "Decoration Day" as it was then known. The date of the order was May 5, 1868, exactly two years after Waterloo's first observance. That year Waterloo joined other communities in the nation by having their ceremony on May 30.
In 1965, a committee of community leaders started plans for the Centennial Celebration of Memorial Day. The committee consisted of VFW Commander James McCann, chairman, American Legion Commander Oliver J. McFall and Mayor Marion DeCicca, co-chairman, along with Village Trustees, M. Lewis Somerville, Roscoe Bartran, Richard Schreck, Tony DiPronio, and VFW Vice-Commander, Kenneth Matoon. Their goals were: "to obtain national recognition of the fact that Waterloo is the birthplace of Memorial Day through Congressional action" and "to plan and execute a proper celebration for such centennial observance."
In May of 1966, just in time for the Centennial, Waterloo was recognized as the "Birthplace of Memorial Day" by the United States Government. This recognition was long in coming and involved hours of painstaking research to prove the claim. While other communities may claim earlier observances of honoring the Civil War dead, none can claim to have been so well planned and complete, nor can they claim the continuity of observances that Waterloo can.
The Centennial Celebration that year brought dignitaries from government, military, veteran's organizations and descendants of the original founders of Memorial Day. A once luxurious home on Waterloo's Main Street, built in 1850, was purchased from the county and restored. Now the Memorial Day Museum, it houses artifacts of the first Memorial Day and the Civil War era.
Memorial Day is commemorated each year in Waterloo. The parade, speeches, and solemn observances keep the meaning of Memorial Day as it was originally intended to be.
Please visit this Waterloo, NY web site for details on the celebration for 2006.
NOTE: Other communites throughout the United States also lay claim Memorial Day. While Waterloo, NY has been sanctioned by the U.S. Government as being the birthplace, other communites have interesting and touching stories concerning their first observance. Among these communities is Boalsburg, PA.
Visit the General John A. Logan Museum
Credit: Some of the information for this article was obtained from Centennial Celebration, souvenir edition of the Geneva Times, printed May 24, 1966.
© 1997-2005 Diane Lerch Kurtz