DECATUR — As America prepares celebrates its 150th Memorial Day, Decatur can take special pride in what has become a national day to remember the sacrifice of veterans who, as President Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, "gave the last full measure of devotion."
Memorial Day was the creation of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans organization for Union soldiers that was founded in Decatur on April 6, 1866. The organization was the brainchild of Benjamin F. Stephenson, a surgeon and Civil War veteran from Springfield.
After the Civil War ended, Lincoln promise the country would care for "those who have borne the burden, his widows and orphans" of the men who lost their lives during the struggle. Stephenson's proposal for the GAR not only intended to pool resources and help those left behind by his fellow soldiers killed in the war, but would also provide a fraternal society for those who survived.
"The Civil War was one of the first times where we had hundreds of thousands of soldiers involved, so the (GAR) was the first group of its type," said Nathan Pierce, executive director of the Macon County History Museum in Decatur.
With the guiding motto of "Loyalty, Fraternity and Charity," Stephenson intended for the organization to be kept under wraps with a "secret ritual."
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Pierce said that he needed someone to print the ritual rules but wanted the printer to be a Union veteran. The closest Union printers were located in Decatur, he said, so Stephenson made the trip and had the rules printed in the city.
"That's the reason why there's this battle between us and Springfield about where the GAR was started," said Becky Damptz, local history librarian and archivist at the Decatur Public Library.
After the rituals were printed, the GAR was officially chartered on April 6, 1866, in a building on Decatur's South Park Street. According to Pierce, there were 12 founding members, and the rules for membership were that they needed to be veterans who had served in the Civil War and were honorably discharged.
Hundreds of members would eventually join the Decatur post, and by 1892, the GAR's national ranks expanded to 445,000. As a result of the growth, the secret ritual aspect of the organization was dropped in the years following its founding.
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It was in 1868 when GAR Commander-in-Chief John A. Logan, the namesake of Illinois' Logan County, issued "General Order No. 11," which established May 30 as "Decoration Day" — an observance that aimed to honor Union veterans' graves by decorating them with flowers.
The idea was to pay respect to Civil War soldiers who were killed in battle, but as the years went on, veterans and families across the nation wanted to remember the soldiers of other wars, too.
After World War I, Decoration Day ceremonies were expanded to include all who died in service of the nation. In 1971, Decoration Day was rechristened "Memorial Day" and was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress and shifted to the last Monday in May.
Looking back 150 years to the first Decoration Day observance, Pierce said some people may not realize that the organization behind what is now Memorial Day got its start in Decatur.
For those interested, Macon County History Museum has a GAR collection. "It's got medals, ribbons, the charter from the very first post ..." he said, noting some of the items on display.
Damptz said the library also has a variety of GAR relics, including the official chapter Bible for the Decatur post and a wide variety of photos. Several monuments in Greenwood Cemetery also are dedicated to Decatur's Civil War soldiers and the war memorial in Fairview Park serves as an homage to their service, she said.
"People do ask about the GAR around here, especially if they had heard about it before," Damptz said.