100 Years Ago: Decoration Day Celebrations

One hundred years ago the last Monday of May was a time to decorate the graves of those who died in previous wars with a strong focus on the Civil War. The day was solemnly celebrated throughout the United States, but it had not yet been declared an official holiday.  Most states called it Decoration Day, though by 1918 this annual remembrance was also called Memorial Day in New Hampshire and other places. It would not be declared a federal holiday until 1971.

Postcard showing a parade held in Manchester New Hampshire in 1918.

The members of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) groups, veterans of the Civil War were aging, dying with the loss of their numbers creating difficulty in organizing large parades and decoration day events. The Sons of Veterans was a group being organized at this time to help fill the ranks. The VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) has been established in 1899 but it was still a fledgling organization. Within a year a new group would be formed specifically to benefit the World War I veterans — the
American Legion.

In 1918 it was the G.A.R., the Son of Veterans, and the related women’s Relief Corps who participated in New Hampshire school programs that included patriotic talks, recitations including the pledge of allegiance, and the singing of patriotic songs. So you can get an idea of what these exercises entailed the newspapers listed songs and recitations, and I share them with you now.

Songs: Marching Through Georgia; Tramp, Tramp, Tramp; The Battle Cry of Freedom; Flag song; Our Own Red, White and Blue; Just Before the Battle Mother; We’re Tenting Tonight; Star Spangled Banner; Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.

Recitation Topics: The Civil War Story, Our Flag, Memorial Day, Memory Day, Lincoln’s Motto, The Flag. SEE Memorial Day (Decoration Day) edited by Robert Haven Schauffler, 1917

There were ceremonies and prayers offered at war monuments and in the cemeteries along with parades and speeches. Other fraternal groups held their own events as shown by an advertisement for Elks to meet to participate in the local parade and exercises. Some organizations had uniforms, others suggested to wear dark clothing and white gloves.

In New Hampshire there were local events relating to Decoration Day and some of them I found surprising. “Ten prisoners at the naval prison (in Portsmouth NH) have quite a program planned for Decoration Day. In the morning they will take part in the ceremony at the water’s edge when flowers will be cast and an address made by a chaplain. In the afternoon they will engage in athletic sports which will consist of baseball, track meet and either boxing bouts. At night they will present a minstrel show at the prison.” [May 29, 1918 Portsmouth Herald].

1917 United States flag.

Flags were being flown on Decoration Day. The newspaper notices suggested that the protocol for hanging a flag on Memorial day is at half mast until noon, then full staff from noon until sunset. The proper method of hanging the flag was to hoist it to the top of the staff, then lower it to the half staff position. If the flags of allies or other emblems are displayed, the flag of the United States should be hoisted first and hung or displayed at the top.

Sketch of battleground burial site from History of the American Field Service in France, 1914-1917 Vol III, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1920, page 242.

Those who had fallen on the battlefields of Europe were not forgotten on this day. An editorial in the Portsmouth Herald (NH) newspaper noted: “And when Memorial Day comes and the people of this country are decorating the graves of their heroes at home, the women of the Salvation Army, an organization that is doing what it can to aid and comfort the armies in France, will place flowers on the graves of all Americans who have fallen there. This is a most thoughtful and considerate and appropriate act, one that will reflect credit upon the Salvation Army, and bring comforting thoughts to many a mourning American home.”

President Woodrow Wilson had asked for national prayer on this day, with a call for an early and honorable peace. It would be 6 more months before this would become a reality.

[Editor’s Note: this story is part of an on-going series about heroic New Hampshire men and women of World War I.  Look here for the entire listing].


SEE “100 Years Ago: Memorial Day of 1917”

Consider Volunteering for the Honor Roll Project For Memorial Day (this one or next one) – blog Nutfield Genealogy



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2 Responses to 100 Years Ago: Decoration Day Celebrations

  1. Pingback: New Hampshire World War I Military: Heroes of The Great War | Cow Hampshire

  2. I enjoyed your interesting and in informative article about the origins of Memorial Day. I’ve always appreciated this holiday because it reminds me not to take what I have as a US citizen for granted.

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