DECATUR – The mystic chords of memory that swelled into the chorus of remembrance we call Memorial Day had its first notes sounded in Decatur.
It all began with the Grand Army of the Republic, which called for the creation of Decoration Day in 1868, a commemoration that would eventually morph into the Memorial Day we honor today. So the GAR gave us Memorial Day, and a march back through history shows Decatur gave us the GAR.
The veterans organization for Union soldiers who served in the Civil War was actually the brainchild of Maj. Benjamin F. Stephenson, who lived in Springfield. His idea was to create something that could pool resources and help the “hungry and poor” widows and orphans left behind by his fellow soldiers killed in the war. He also thought it would be jolly to have something to promote “worthy comradeship” between the survivors who had lived to go home again.
Strangely, Stephenson also planned for the organization to be hush-hush with “secret ritual,” a kind of uniformed Masons with ceremonial muskets. According to Decatur Herald archives, he needed a printer to print up the ritual rules but wanted the printers to be veterans, so everything would stay on a need-to-know basis.
“He could find no eligible printers in Springfield where he lived, but former comrades informed him that there were two veterans living in Decatur who were engaged in the printing trade,” the paper reported in a look-back piece printed in 1915.
Stephenson found his printers and, “They became so enthused with the idea they prevailed upon the Major to found the Grand Army of the Republic here (in Decatur),” the paper writes.
So the GAR was officially mustered into being April 6, 1866, with Post No. 1 establishing its first meeting place at what was then 253 S. Park St. next to Central Park.
The secret ritual bit was dropped along the way as the GAR's numbers began to swell. Hundreds of members would eventually join the Decatur post, and the GAR's national ranks had expanded to 445,000 by 1892.
With growth came publicity, and with publicity came political firepower and influence, which was being felt as early as 1868. That's when the GAR's second commander in chief, Maj. General John A. Logan, issued something called “General Order No. 11,” establishing May 30 as Decoration Day to honor Union veterans' graves, and it wasn't long before a grateful nation also snapped to attention and took notice of what the GAR was doing.
The idea of soldier grave decorating dated back to the war itself and sprang from women in the Confederacy who, in 1863 and just a year after the bloody Battle of Shiloh, had gone around scattering flowers on rebel war graves.
But, in an act of compassion, they were moved by the sight of unkempt graves for some Union soldiers, and they scattered flowers on those, too. It was a mark of healing respect, the story of which traveled rapidly by word of mouth.
May 30 was the date Logan picked for Decoration Day, because he knew spring flowers would be in bloom across the country by then. His orders told the GAR posts nationwide to decorate the veterans' graves and always safeguard them at all costs.
“Let no neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic,” the general's order said.
Over time, the passion behind Decoration Day grew, and veterans and families wanted to remember the soldiers of other wars, too. After World War I, the Decoration Day ceremonies were expanded to include all who have died in the service of their nation and, in 1971, what was described as “Memorial Day” was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress and shifted to the last Monday in May.
As the numbers of veterans grew across time, time's ultimate roll call had been busy thinning the ranks of the GAR. The last surviving member of the Decatur post, C.H. Collins, died in 1942. Albert Woolson of Duluth, Minn., the last Union veteran nationwide, died at the age of 109 in 1956; he had been a drummer boy and is now honored with a statue at Gettysburg.
The GAR's memory marches on, however, the torch of remembrance now held aloft by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, founded in 1881. Membership is open to those who can claim ancestral links to a Civil War soldier and associate membership is also open to those who just like the cause. Dana Hales of Newman belongs to the 24-strong Franklin Reed Post No. 24 in Tuscola and can claim a direct link: his great-grandfather, William F. Mavity, was a corporal in Company K of the 125th Illinois.
“He survived the war, but not all of him,” says Hales, 65. “He lost an arm because of a wound and amputation in September 1864.”
Mavity came home to struggle on as a disabled farmer and received the princely sum of a $24 a month pension in compensation for his missing arm.
“He died in 1893 at the age of 58,” Halessays. “My grandmother was still collecting the pension when she died in 1955.”
Hales says members of the Sons of Union Veterans visit schools and other organizations to give Civil War talks and share the story of the brother-against-brother conflict that shaped this nation.
“The Civil War has so much meaning,” Hales says. “But on Memorial Day, we also remember all those men and women in uniform who made the ultimate sacrifice of losing their life.
“And we remember all those who provided their services to their country for a period of time, and have since passed away.”
In Decatur and Macon County, the death of soldiers young and old is honored by the Macon County Honor Guard, veterans who perform graveside military ritual and fire rifle salutes. Since the honor guard was formed in 1995 by its current commander, 87-year-old Rudy Escobar of Decatur, it's carried out 3,358 funerals, traveled 94,000 miles and fired more than 70,000 blank rounds.
Escobar, a Marine Corps veteran, says it's all about showing respect, stopping for a moment to acknowledge the passing of a life that mattered.
“We don't only do it for the deceased vet, we do it for the family, to let them know there is somebody else who has not forgotten,” he says.
The honor guard never stands at ease for long. Escobar says their weekly average of veterans' funerals ranges from a minimum of one to a maximum of six.
“Every day for us is Memorial Day,” he said.