By Pat Atchison 

Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, as it was then called, was first widely observed in the United States on May 30, 1868. The original intent was to honor the Union soldiers killed during the Civil War by decorating their gravesites. 

Decoration Day was not mentioned in the local newspaper until May 27,1881. That brief announcement stated, "Next Monday will be Decoration Day, and it is to be generally observed in the States." Tuesday's edition said simply "Yesterday was Decoration Day."

In 1885, the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization composed of Union veterans, arranged a procession and program. The procession, which consisted of various military groups; the Tenth Cavalry Band; the orator of the day; the Mayor and City Council; distinguished citizens and officers of the army in carriages; and, the general public in carriages and on foot, paraded through the city. When the procession reached the plaza, memorial services were opened by a prayer offered by the chaplain, followed by a reading of the general orders given by the Post Adjutant. The orator of the day then spoke. 

Each year, new elements were added and the observances became increasingly elaborate. Businesses were closed during the time of the procession and the services. By the late 1890s, they were closed for the entire day. Exercises of a "patriotic nature" were held in the public schools on the day before the holiday. There were songs and recitations "all of a patriotic nature, and calculated to arouse a spirit of patriotism and love of our flag in the hearts of the young." 

Very early on Decoration Day morning, members of either the Women's Relief Corps or the Grand Army of the Republic placed flowers on all the graves of deceased soldiers buried in the local cemeteries. By the late 1890s, these flowers were shipped by train from California. 

At mid-morning, a procession formed downtown. The parade was composed of military units, the Whipple band, the fire department, veterans, school children, fraternal and civic organizations, plus carriages bearing the Mayor and City Council members. 

The procession proceeded to one of the cemeteries where services were held at the gravesite of one of the deceased Civil War soldiers. A typical program included band music, a prayer by the chaplain, depositing of flowers by the G. A. R., the recitation of an appropriate poem, firing of a salute, taps, and a benediction. The procession then re-formed and returned downtown. 

In the evening, an indoor service was held at the courthouse or the opera house. This program consisted of recitations, singing, a prayer, and usually several addresses. Refreshments were often served. 

In 1997, Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for not only the dead of all of the wars, but for all of those who have died, no matter what the circumstance. 

Two observances are held in Prescott. One will be held at the historic Citizens Cemetery on Sheldon Street at 10:00 a.m. on Monday, May 26, 1997. The other will be at the Prescott National Cemetery at 1:00 p.m. on Friday, May 30, 1997. It is hoped that you will join in remembering. 

Pat Atchison is Chairperson, Yavapai Cemetery Association.

Illustrating image

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (mil176p)
Reuse only by permission.

The band at Fort Whipple taking a break circa 1890s. The Tenth Cavalry Band often marched and played during the Decoration Day Parades down Gurley Street.