Memorial Day

On May 1, 1865, less than one month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, approximately 10,000 individuals gathered at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, South Carolina to arrange flowers and tend the graves of 257 Union dead. The racetrack had been a prisoner-of-war camp and the men buried there had died under terrible circumstances. Those present were primarily recently freed African-Americans turning out to pay their respects to these Union dead and ensure the men had the burial they deserved. This event is widely recognized today as the first Decoration Day, what we now call Memorial Day.

Each spring in those years immediately after the war Northerners and Southerners alike visited their local cemeteries to decorate soldiers’ graves and try to make sense of the conflict that had taken the lives of at least 750,000 Americans. These events proved so meaningful that on May 5, 1868 John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the powerful Union veterans organization, asked Americans to set aside May 30th “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, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Decoration Day acquired a rich tradition in both the North and South in the two decades after the war, with people turning out as General Logan asked to mark graves, parade, picnic, and socialize. The 1886 observation was unique in a significant way: it was the first Decoration Day to take place after the death of Ulysses S. Grant.

Horse and carriage procession moving through crowds paying their respects at Grant's temporary tomb.
Procession of carriages and people leading up to Grant's temporary tomb in 1886.
Images: NPS / Manhattan Historic Sites Archive

Grant’s August 1885 funeral had been an important event witnessed by at least one million Americans. Now this following spring people were determined again to remember the general and eighteenth president entombed in Riverside Park. The 1886 commemoration became not just a national but international event. Floral arrangements poured in from across New England, the Midwest, states of the former Confederacy, and even California, which was made possible by the construction of the transcontinental railroad and advent of refrigerated rail cars. Bermuda sent two date palms. Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, and China were just some of the many countries who sent flowers, representatives, or both. Americans were nostalgic in this period. For one thing, the Civil War was receding into history. Since Grant’s death that past July, George B. McClellan and Winfield Scott Hancock had also passed on. It was also a time of uncertainty and unrest. Racial tensions were growing in the wake of Reconstruction. Labor strikes had been taking place for years and climaxed in early 1886 when hundreds of thousands of railroad workers and others, including in New York City, walked off the line. Earlier that very May in Chicago at least eight people were killed in the Haymarket Square Riot. It is no wonder Americans were retreating to the past.

Flower arrangements adorn Grant's temporary tomb in 1886. Image: NPS / Manhattan Historic Sites Archive
Grant's temporary tomb adorned with flower arrangements in 1886.
Image: NPS / Manhattan Historic Sites Archive

Decoration Day 1886—some were already calling it by its alternative name, Memorial Day—turned out to be a two-day affair. Because May 30th fell on a Sunday many of the more public events were held on Monday the 31st. It was on this day that twenty thousand assembled at Grant’s mausoleum to hear speakers and listen to music. Other events were taking place throughout the city. People tended graves at Green-Wood, Cypress Hills, Woodlawn, and other area cemeteries, and decorated statues of Abraham Lincoln and other figures. President Grover Cleveland was in town and observed parades in both Manhattan and Brooklyn. At 2:00 pm, a band at Grant’s resting place played Chopin’s “Funeral March.” Speakers from nation-wide G.A.R. posts spoke of Grant, the war, and their fallen comrades. Appropriately, General John A. Logan—who had served under Ulysses S. Grant out West and helped make Memorial Day the annual event it had become—gave the keynote address. The event concluded with the playing of Beethoven’s “Funeral March.”

A large crowd of people on a hill surrounding Grant's temporary tomb. Image NPS / Manhattan Historic Sites Archive
Crowd of people surrounding Grant's temporary tomb in 1886.
Image: NPS / Manhattan Historic Sites Archive

Still the remembrance of Grant did not end entirely. Thousands turned out daily over the next several weeks to see the spectacle of so many floral arrangements dedicated to the memory of General Grant. On Saturday June 13, 1886 as many as 10,000 arrived. This included a contingent of African-American cadets, who had marched to Riverside Park armed with wooden muskets accompanied by a fife and drum ensemble. The cadets unshouldered their arms and silenced their music upon entering the park, marched to the tomb, and laid a wreath of red and white roses at Grant’s resting place.

Last updated: May 25, 2018

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