The Day of the Dead Union Honored Decoration


When this baby boomer was a kid, many seniors still called Memorial Day decorating day.

Why? Because it was a day to “decorate” with flowers the graves of those who lost their lives serving in the armed forces.

The popularization of the term “Decoration Day” can be traced to General Order No. 11, issued May 5, 1868, by Illinois-born John A. Logan, in his capacity as National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Logan’s order stated: “May 30, 1868 is designated for the purpose of sprinkling with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the last rebellion, and whose bodies now rest in almost every town, village and hamlet cemetery in the country. Logan ordered Union veterans who belonged to the Grand Army of the Republic to “guard their graves with sacred vigilance”.

Robert Ingersoll, the “Great Agnostic” whose public lectures have alternately delighted and scandalized audiences across America, raised the 11th Illinois Cavalry in 1861 and served as its colonel. In a Decoration Day address in 1882, Ingersoll told his audience, “This day is sacred to our Union dead.

As I pointed out in my book Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois, abolitionists were often reviled in late 19th century America because many of their fellow citizens accused them of sparked the Civil War by their uncompromising opposition to slavery.

Ingersoll, however, would have none of that! “Today we respectfully thank abolitionists,” he said. “The abolitionists were heroes. He loves his country best and it strives to make it better. Union armies fought to realize the vision of the abolitionists. “Let us proudly remember that in our time the greatest, greatest, noblest army in the world fought, not to enslave, but to liberate,” Ingersoll told his audience.

In a speech on Decoration Day in 1888, Ingersoll said Union men were “heroes who fought to make our nation just and free” and “eradicated that ignorant and cruel prejudice according to which human rights depend on race or color”. he praised abolitionists who “have been imprisoned for pointing the North Star into the dome of heaven – for giving food to the hungry, water to the parched lips of thirst, shelter to the hunted, help the oppressed”.

Ingersoll was not exaggerating. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 provided six months imprisonment for anyone offering shelter, food, or clothing to a fugitive slave as well as a fine of $1,000.

Ingersoll was a staunch Republican who often gave speeches supporting GOP candidates. Republicans today who so revere our nation’s founding fathers will be horrified by this section of Ingersoll’s speech. “For many years we have insisted that our fathers founded a free government, that they were freedom lovers, believers in equal rights,” he told the audience.

We were wrong.

The settlers did not believe in today’s freedom. Their laws were full of intolerance, slavery and the infamous spirit of caste. They persecuted and enslaved. Ingersoll saw nothing sacred in our nation’s original Constitution because it “legalized slavery” and Congress “passed laws making it the duty of free men to keep others from becoming free.”

The men who served in the Union army and navy “gave us a nation – a republic without slaves – a sovereign republic”, as well as a “constitution for all – which can be read without shame and defended without dishonor.” Ingersoll was referring to the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which abolished slavery and attempted to secure certain rights for freed slaves.

The fallen Union men we honor on Decoration Day “died for freedom – they died for us,” Ingersoll said. “They sleep in the land they made free, under the flag they made stainless, under the solemn pines, the sad hemlocks, the watery willows and the entwined vines.”

The graves of the Union dead are rarely decorated now. But the passage of time will never diminish the courage and the sacrifice of these men who helped to destroy slavery.

John J. Dunphy is an author, bookseller, and recording secretary for the Godfrey Democrats.


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