Tom Kacich: For years, many in C-U ignored Decoration Day
For a holiday whose roots were firmly planted in Illinois, Decoration Day — later known as Memorial Day — didn't become a large scale observance in Champaign-Urbana until 1880.
That was 12 years after Gen. John Logan had issued his general order that May 30, 1868, was designated "for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion," or the Civil War.
Since both Logan and Abraham Lincoln were at least adopted sons of Illinois — Logan was born here, Lincoln spent most of his time in Illinois and is buried less than 100 miles from here — it made sense that Champaign County would observe the day.
But no, it became the duty of the editors of the weekly Champaign County Gazette almost annually to berate citizens for ignoring it.
1871: "People (are) all too busy making a few dirty dollars to waste any time in paying homage to the fallen brave. Individual efforts, however, placed formal adornments upon the graves of almost every soldier resting in Mt. Hope."
1872: "In localities like ours, where the people are dumb to the past, and to not see fit to make any fitting public demonstration, then let the friends and relatives of the departed perform what has become almost a duty."
1873: "The decoration ceremonies were observed by the scholars attending the public schools, Friday last. We hope that the tribute paid to the union dead, inaugurated by the little folk in this city, will be productive of a more general observance in the future."
1874: "Decoration Day was allowed to pass away in Champaign without the slightest observance. This seems like shameful neglect when we remember the number of brave men from this county who gave their lives for the union."
1877: "Numerous flags decorated Main Street in Urbana, but that was the extent of the local services."
In the meantime, hamlets smaller than Champaign and Urbana, including Rantoul and Monticello, held Decoration Day events. In Rantoul in 1875, for example, an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 people gathered at Walnut Grove on the west side of the village for prayers, addresses, music and to watch about two dozen young girls decorate the graves of fallen soldiers.
"Almost the entire population, not only of the village but of the adjacent country for miles around, came together to assist in or to encourage by their presence this tender memorial of the noble patriots who gave their all that the Republic might live," reported the Gazette.
Finally, on Sunday, May 30, 1880, Champaign-Urbana and its combined population of more than 8,000 finally held a mass Decoration Day observance at Mount Hope.
About 50 ex-soldiers and citizens had met about two weeks prior to plan the event. The first thing they decided was to schedule the observance for 3 p.m. Sunday the 30th, although the governor of Illinois had proclaimed Saturday the 29th as the proper date.
"(I)t was finally decided by a unanimous vote that the ceremonies would be appropriately conducted on Sunday, thereby giving the laboring people, farmers and clerks an opportunity to participate," the Gazette reported. "The ceremonies will be of a solemn and serious order, and nothing partaking of the character of a jollification will be permitted to transpire."
People were urged to donate their flowers to the ceremony and deliver them by 2 p.m. Saturday so that "all the ladies of the city" could prepare them "for decorating purposes."
It rained almost all day Saturday, poured again Saturday night, and Sunday dawned with gray skies. There was concern the event would be canceled. But the Decoration Day committee decided to carry out as much of the program as possible, and quickly informed all local churches of such.
About 2,000 people attended the ceremonies, including a number of Civil War veterans. There was a funeral dirge, prayers, the singing of "America," speeches and eulogies, the singing of "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground," more speeches, the playing of "Hail Columbia" and finally the decorating of graves.
There were enough flowers, the Gazette said, "to almost hide from sight all the graves of soldiers that were found."
The graves of 36 white soldiers and nine "colored" soldiers were decorated.
But many graves — more than 15 years after the end of the war between the states — still were unmarked or could not be found.
"After the decoration," the Gazette wrote, "the large assemblage of people dispersed quietly to their homes, impressed with the solemnity of the occasion and conscious of having for once, at least, shown the respect due to those who risked their lives that their country might live."
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.