“The bugles were blowing taps today,
“Over a wind swept hill,
“And they said a prayer where a soldier lay
“In a spot serenely still;
“And we saw the country’s colors wave
“Over a hero’s honored grave.”
The rhythmic lines were penned for a poem 80 years ago by Dennis R. Smith, a legendary staff member of The Canton Repository. The title of his front-page collection of stanzas, published in the newspaper on May 30 eight decades ago, was “Memorial Day – 1941.”
The story accompanying the poem traced the history of the holiday back to 1868, when respect first formally was paid to soldiers who gave their lives in the Civil War.
And a photograph published in the news package in 1941 showed Raymond Edleman, 94, one of Canton’s two surviving veterans of the Civil War, standing over a flag-decorated grave in the Civil War soldier section of West Lawn Cemetery in Canton.
“Tribute of a soldier to a soldier,” the caption for the photograph began.
When the holiday began
Memorial Day was called by a different name when Canton began celebrating the holiday.
“Air Of Reverence Pervaded City’s First ‘Decoration Day,'” recalled the headline over an article by Repository staff writer Lois Zimmer in 1941.
Zimmer’s story recalled a day in 1868 “When Everyone Remembered,” another headline said.
“Once upon a time there was a spirit of Decoration Day – a combination of love and gratitude, of peace, of patriotism and community pride which pervaded all the land,” Zimmer wrote. “Work stopped, stores closed and parades moved along dusty village streets. Former soldiers donned old uniforms proudly and school children decked in their Sunday best marched to the music of volunteer bands, carrying flags and flowers to the cemetery where, for the space of an hour or so, everyone remembered.”
Zimmer called the day more “beautiful” than “sad,” even though it was a time set aside for paying respect to the war dead.
“Lonely little graveyards neglected all the rest of the year, suddenly blossomed with flags where star-shaped iron holders indicated last resting places of soldiers in the Grand Army of the Republic.”
The G.A.R. was the fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union military forces that was formed in 1866 in Springfield, Illinois, and which grew into hundreds of “posts” throughout the country. By 1941, however, when Edleman was pictured in the Repository, only one other Civil War soldier remained as a member of the McKinley Post, G.A.R, which once had a roster of 750. The other man, Capt. William H. Little, 96, was confined to his home when the first Decoration Day was observed in Canton cemeteries.
Many of those hundreds of Canton-area Civil War vets gathered for the first Decoration Day to honor fellow soldiers who had died in the War Between the States.
“Friends from a distance renewed old acquaintances as they met on family lots, exchanging reminiscences and trading vital statistics,” wrote Zimmer. “And everywhere there were flowers – geraniums, roses, peonies, lemon lilies, snowballs and mock orange – all the old-fashioned favorites, the choicest blooms that family and friends could provide.”
Was an impressive display
The Repository’s founder, John Saxton, had set the tone for the initial observance of Decoration Day, noted Zimmer. Saxton wanted the day to be a colorful and memorable celebration, but still reserved and dignified, and he said so in his newspaper
“It is desirable,” wrote Saxton in the then-weekly Ohio Repository on May 27, 1868, “that the ceremony should be made as imposing and effective as possible, in order that the children, seeing how we honor the memory of those who gave their lives for the nation, shall in coming generations hand down the affectionate custom.”
Saxton reported in his paper that Gen. John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the G.A.R., had announced that posts throughout the northern part of the United States would “pay homage to fallen comrades” on May 30 in 1868, which was a Saturday that year, noted Zimmer in her 1941 recollection.
“At 4 o’clock the street in the vicinity of the St. Cloud Hotel (on Tuscarawas St. W downtown) was lined with people, buggies, carriages and all other sorts of vehicles,” Zimmer wrote of the 1868 event. “Fifteen minutes later, the parade column was formed.”
That parade, led by the G.A.R. band and color guard, followed by a battalion of veterans, also included “citizens who wished to visit the cemetery,” along with “ministers, friends and women who had been chosen to take charge of decorating the graves.”
The parade marchers proceeded to a “new” cemetery called West Lawn, Zimmer recalled for Repository readers.
“Then followed a ceremony which John Saxton described as ‘deeply affecting,'” wrote Zimmer. “Women moved to the wagon which contained choice bouquets, baskets of flowers and a large number of wreaths. They covered each soldier’s grave with flowers and place a wreath at the head.”
Zimmer recorded that 19 Civil War soldiers were buried in West Lawn cemetery at the time.
“After an interval the bugle sounded, all reassembled in the line of parade and returned to the city,” wrote Zimmer.
There, the people in the procession visited other cemeteries where the graves of additional Civil War soldiers could be found.
Spirit of holiday faded
Zimmer also recalled subsequent Decoration Day celebrations in her article.
“By 1876 the observance of Decoration Day was becoming a well organized affair,” she reported. “That was the first parade in which the Canton Cadets participated and memories of their initial public appearance still occupy an important place in the minds of the surviving cadets – among them Col. Harry Frease and William T. Kuhns.
“The company was made up of boys 10 to 12 years of age. There were no Boy Scout activities to absorb youthful energy in those days, and local boys thrilled with hero worship for the returned soldiers.”
The cadets marched with “wooden guns, brown web belts and brown caps,” Zimmer remembered in her article.
Those and other historical recollections in the article served as an illustration of the changes that had taken place in the manner in which we celebrated the holiday by 1941, which by then was being called Memorial Day by many, even though the official modern designation of the day would not become official for three more decades, in 1971.
“All too often, here of late, it seems that somewhere along the way that spirit which made earlier Decoration Days so beautiful has been lost,” Zimmer wrote in 1941. “The modern day of vacation which has evolved from those first unpretentious ceremonies has more of holiday and less of holy day in its character. Spontaneity has yielded to formality; homage accorded the dead seems in many instances to spring from a sense of duty; traffic noises drown out the music of the bands; and many haven’t even the time to watch the parade as it passes.
“Back in the days before automobile races, ball games, picnics, fishing and fireworks had turned Decoration Day into a noisy festival, nothing more exciting than a runaway or a thunderstorm ever occurred to mar the beauty of the occasion,” added Zimmer. “The day was spent quietly with perhaps a reunion of veterans, a band concert, or an ice cream festival during the evening. That was what the G.A.R. had in mind when the first celebration was planned.”
And, that’s the spirit of patriotism and reverent honor which Dennis R. Smith captured with words in his 1941 poem.
This he wrote those 80 years ago:
“The bugles are blowing assembly call,
“Over a land at peace;
“From city and farmland Americans all
“Praying that wars may cease;
“Girding themselves that their land may be
“Secure in its liberty, safe and free.”
Reach Gary at [email protected]
On Twitter: @gbrownREP