It was once called Decoration Day, because the graves of the slain from the Civil War were decorated with flowers. Gettysburg commemorates one of the longest-running remembrances of Memorial Day, beginning in 1868. This year marks the 150th observance, and next year will mark the sesquicentennial of this commemoration in Pennsylvania’s most historic town.
Here are a few interesting facts about Gettysburg’s observance of this important day throughout the years:
On May 30, 1868, Gettysburg first observed the day, in compliance with General Rule #11 issued from General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic: “ The 30th of May…is designated for the purpose of strewing 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 .” 1
On that first Memorial Day in Gettysburg, shops and other places of business closed at 5:30 p.m., and a salvo of artillery was fired from Cemetery Hill with a 22-gun salute. 2
In 1877, the first person not from Gettysburg gave the Memorial Day kenote address. He was J.M. Vanderslice from Philadelphia.
Also in 1877, children from the Gettysburg schools began strewing flowers on the graves of the Gettysburg slain in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Prior to that year, orphans from the local orphanage had the honors. With the orphanage closed, the task was gratefully taken by the area’s school pupils. 3
In 1878, the first U.S. President to visit Gettysburg since Lincoln visited during Memorial Day. Rutherford B. Hayes delivered a few remarks but was not the keynote speaker that day. Former Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin was also present and gave remarks. The keynote speaker for the ceremony that day was General Benjamin Butler, of Massachusetts. 4
In 1874, Decoration Day became a national holiday. Banks and government offices closed for the day. Many local businesses in Gettysburg closed as well to commemorate the solemn occasion.
In 1885, Sons of the Union Veterans began aiding the elementary school children in decorating the graves of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Some of these men were sons of those who died at Gettysburg.
In 1888, William Ryan of New York recited the Gettysburg Address for the occasion in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery – the first time the address had been heard since Lincoln uttered it in 1863. It was received with great enthusiasm, and sparked an annual recitation for many years. 5
So far, five U.S. Presidents have delivered keynote addresses for Memorial Day commemorations at Gettysburg. They are: Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Theodore Roosevelt actually gave two addresses, one in 1904 while serving as Commander-in-Chief and the other in 1912, shortly after his tenure as President had ended.
Many Gettysburg veterans and sons of veterans have served as Chief Marshals of the Memorial Day observances in town. Among them was Civil War veteran Theodore McAllister, who presided over the event in 1888, 1891, 1893 and 1907. Captain Henry Stewart, the son of Gettysburg teacher and diarist Salome Myers Stewart, also served annually as Chief Marshal for many years, until ill health prevented him in the early 1920s. Because his mother had nursed a dying soldier after the Battle of Gettysburg and alerted the family, fate intervened. When the grieving family came to retrieve the slain Union soldier, Salome met the soldier’s brother, and the two fell in love and married – and new life came from a devastating death.
In 1880, Congressman Charles Williams of Wisconsin succinctly described the reason for remembrance: “This is sacred ground, and few places on earth possess a more enduring fame. Though annual, the commemoration of the bravery of the dead here buried can never grow old .” 6
“ We reflect upon what those who died might have accomplished ,” said Henry Hull, who delivered the keynote address in the cemetery in 1901, “ had the opportunity been theirs.” 7
As the 150th Memorial Day is observed in Gettysburg, since that first official commemoration in 1868, flowers are still strewn by school children, an annual parade marks the event, and a keynote speaker still stirs us to remembrance in the first of National Cemeteries at historic Gettysburg.
Sources: Memorial Day General Information File, Adams County Historical Society (hereafter ACHS). The Gettysburg Star & Sentinel, May 27, 1868. The Gettysburg Compiler, June 3, 1877. The Gettysburg Star & Sentinel, June 1, 1897.
1. The Gettysburg Star & Sentinel, May 27, 1868.
3. The Gettysburg Compiler, June 3, 1877.
4. Memorial Day File, ACHS.
5. The Gettysburg Star & Sentinel, June 1, 1897.
6. Memorial Day General Information File, ACHS.