Memorial Day: Origins of an American Holiday

Freedom is not free. Who has not set a geranium in cold earth or worn the paper poppy?

Who has not set a geranium in cold earth or worn the paper poppy? Who has not stood under cumulus skies on the greensward edged with trees, hearing the crackle of gunfire on a crisp May morning?

We bow our heads to soft invocations and listen reassured to a prize patriotic essay. We sit curbside, applauding thinning ranks of gray heads in their garrison caps. We wonder at the white-gloved salute to fallen comrades, memories welling in the eye. And who has not looked skyward with shaded glance to search the expressionless gaze of the sculpted sentry, defending his castellated monument? Who is this frozen hero at parade rest, but a friend and a neighbor.

Perhaps it was not the Last Hurrah, but nearly so. The Union Army veterans’ organization, known as the Grand Army of the Republic or G. A. R., once boasted five posts with over 300 members in Bergen County—but on Memorial Day, May 30, 1931, only twelve Civil War veterans answered the muster roll, the oldest being 93 and the youngest, 78. While their ranks once filled parades and their stories enthralled school children, now only a hail-and-hearty few remained. For the most part, these weathered survivors had been little more than adolescents when they embarked upon the defining adventure of their lives. And each uniquely was an eyewitness to history.

On that Memorial Day long ago, Thomas Doyle, 83, resided with his two daughters in a house he built on Santiago Street, Rutherford, in 1889. At twelve years of age, he joined the crew of the Harriet Lane, the first steam-powered U. S. Revenue cutter. Pressed into federal service, he witnessed the opening scenes of the Civil War, watching from outside the breakwater as Major Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter in Charlestown Harbor on April 13, 1861. At war’s end, he participated in the capture of Fort Fisher, North Carolina, on January 15, 1865, which involved the largest amphibious operation prior to World War II. Continuing the family tradition of military service, his son, Thomas, served in the Spanish-American War and his daughter Ruth was a yeomanette in the U. S. Navy during World War I.

On the other hand, ninety-year old John V. Bruder, of Palisade Avenue, Bogota, served in a Southern battery that fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Captured on a blockade-runner, he deserted the Confederate cause and enlisted in a military brass band with the 5th Regiment Artillery, New York Volunteers, stationed in the Shenandoah Valley. After the war he managed an opera house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and played with the popular Dan Clemens’ band, before settling in Bergen County.

George C. Eldridge, of Dumont, rode with the First New York Cavalry, enlisting when he was sixteen. His unit fought over 300 battles and skirmishes, all in Virginia. He met Confederate General John Singleton Mosby, otherwise known as the “Gray Ghost,” on the field of battle and saw General Stonewall Jackson at close quarters from his lair along a skirmish line. He spoke at the dedication of the Camp Merritt Monument on Memorial Day, 1924, where he met General Wesley Merritt’s widow and General John J. Pershing.

Joseph Hart, 84 years old, of Bergen Boulevard, Ridgefield, enlisted at 14 years of age with his parents’ consent. Shipping out of Brooklyn Navy Yard on the USS Althea, a steam tugboat built in New Brunswick, N. J., he came under fire three days later on the James River in June 1864. As an orderly, he saw President Lincoln while delivering dispatches to Washington, D. C. He always remembered hearing news of Lincoln’s assassination while standing on the Battle House steps in Mobile, Alabama, shortly after the surrender of the Confederate port on April 12, 1865.

Speaking of these “Heroes of Another Day” on May 29, 1931, the Bergen Evening Record summarized what might be said of most American veterans who carried vivid dreams long after the guns had fallen silent: “Forgotten bugle calls come dimly across the years as they dream on warm side porches or in the houses of relatives; the faces and voices of comrades long dead are more vibrant in their memories than those of neighbors and relatives; the humor and friendliness of the campfire are more important than the rattle and roll of guns in the battles in which they served; their enemies of seventy years ago are now their friends.”

Memorial Day was originally styled Decoration Day from the sorrowing springtime ritual of marking graves of the Nation’s Civil War dead with flowers and a flag. President Ulysses S. Grant and First Lady Julia attended the first National observance of Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868. Before the Civil War, there had been no special occasion set aside to honor veterans and war heroes.

The Civil War was fought on an unprecedented scale, geographically and technologically, accelerating an industrial revolution in the Free States. Before it ended, the conflict not only redefined the Nation, but it touched nearly every household with sadness. It took decades for private grief to coalesce into official mourning and for Memorial Day to reach general acceptance, especially in New Jersey, where the war faced considerable political opposition. Despite this, over a thousand Bergen County men fought. As partisan passions faded and increasing numbers of Civil War veterans moved into Bergen County, the holiday took hold, strengthened by its growing association with the opening of the summer season. Memorial Day was soon the occasion for lawn parties, picnics, shooting matches and other social gatherings. On October 21, 1892, the McPherson Post No. 52, Grand Army of the Republic, dedicated a war memorial with the figure of a uniformed soldier, seven feet tall, placed prominently in the Hackensack Cemetery.

The Spanish-American War added to the sad necessity of honoring fallen warriors. Bergen County sent four National Guard companies to war from Hackensack, Leonia, Englewood and Rutherford. A 4,200-pound gun from the Watervleit Arsenal was placed on the south side of the Green, opposite the Court House, and dedicated to the veterans of the Civil and Spanish-American Wars on Memorial Day 1908. The Major John Engel Camp, Spanish War Veterans, of Hackensack, was the first Spanish-American War veterans’ camp in the United States to dedicate a monument. Before a crowd of several hundred, Little Belle Burroughs, daughter of Lieutenant Addison B. Burroughs, unveiled the memorial, topped by a small cannon captured in the Philippines, in the New York Cemetery at Hackensack on May 31, 1909.

Thousands of Bergen County citizen-soldiers served in the First World War. Over a million men passed through Camp Merritt, which contained 1,314 buildings on 770 acres of undeveloped land in Dumont, Bergenfield, Cresskill and Tenafly. During 1918, almost 600,000 soldiers marched out to Alpine Landing, where they boarded steamers for transport to Hoboken. In 1919-20, over half a million returning soldiers passed through the camp. Reportedly 535 men and nurses died at the camp hospital, due largely to the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19.

In 1919, The Merritt Dispatch proposed a monument to honor those “who died in service and other thousands who made the supreme sacrifice on the battlefields of France, whose last abiding place on native soil was Camp Merritt.” With assistance from the Bergen County Historical Society, the Bergen County Board of Chosen Freeholders, the State of New Jersey, individual veterans and generous citizens, a granite obelisk was erected at the intersection of Knickerbocker Road and Madison Avenue. General John J. Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Force, dedicated the Camp Merritt Memorial on May 29, 1924, before 20,000 people.

America mobilized again for war in December 1941. Bergen County citizens served in every capacity and every theater of the conflict with many making the ultimate sacrifice. Observance of Memorial Day grew in solemnity in the years after the Second World War with each great city and small town grieving for its honor roll. Through conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf, Manhattan Island, Iraq and Afghanistan, the ranks of heroes multiply, but with each name and personal sacrifice indelibly inscribed upon the hearts of bereaved loved ones and a grateful Nation.

So Memorial Day returns again with smiling flowers, our recollection refreshed. At summer’s threshold, we honor the civilian soldier—a great-grandparent, grandparent, father, mother or uncle. Or more sadly, we mark the empty place at our table for a sister, brother, friend or cousin, of one dearest to our heart. We breathe deeply and consider what might have been if the clarion had not sounded, returning from consecrated ground confident that Liberty has and will be bravely defended in every time of need.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Billy Mays May 25, 2012 at 06:15 PM
I have to work this weekend. We're going to clean my building from top to bottom.
Billy Mays May 25, 2012 at 06:16 PM
That isn't me who works in a bank. I'm a head janitor.
Billy Mays May 25, 2012 at 06:17 PM
JerseyGirl, It was a good article. Probably written by a hot, Republican lady.
Jane Lyle Diepeveen May 26, 2012 at 02:52 PM
Thank you Kevin for a really poetic, beautifully-written as well as informative article. Jane Lyle Diepeveen
Helga Meyer May 27, 2012 at 03:34 AM
I hope I will be able to watch it.Will it be broadcasted??? At any rate I wiil try to catch it. H.E.M.


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