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Memorial Day Takes New Form

By THOMAS P. FARNER | May 22, 2019

Surf City — The story of Memorial Day – which, along with Labor Day, has become a government proclaimed three-day weekend, with both bookending the summer tourist season – has evolved over the years, with events that took place 100 years ago changing it forever. The story begins in 1867 in the aftermath of the Civil War. A prominent Philadelphia woman wrote a letter to Gen. John A. Logan, commander of the newly formed Grand Army of the Republic, a powerful veterans organization of Union Army veterans.

In the “spring of 1867, Mr. and Mrs. Henry S. Kimball of West Philadelphia, Pa., were visiting several points in the South. Mrs. Kimball, upon returning to Philadelphia, wrote to Logan, an old friend, stating that in her visit to the South ‘she had particularly noticed southern women decorating the graves of their dead, fallen in battle,’ and suggesting to him that, ‘as the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic,’ he should ‘have our heroic soldiers whose lonely graves are, many unmarked, remembered in the same beautiful way.’”

On May 5, 1868, Logan issued to his members General Order number 11.

“1. The 30th day of May, 1808, is 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 and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit. … Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or 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.”

In 1874 as the political power of the G.A.R. grew in the North, Maine became the first state to make the day a legal holiday. Meanwhile in the South, May 10 became the date for its own Memorial Day observance. By the time of World War I, the number of Civil War veterans was declining, along with their political power during the war. The government spent millions promoting “Americanism” and unity, and with the victory on Nov. 11, 1918, came the promise the boys would be home in 1919. The unity theme continued as the government had a final liberty loan drive to pay for the war.

From the Tuckerton Beacon of April 17, 1919: “Arrangements have been made to have the War Exhibit Train that will tour the states of Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey make a stop in Tuckerton.

“The train will be at the Tuckerton Railroad Station on May 12, until 3 P.M. … It will have on board a battle scarred whippet tank, an armored car, and a 74 foot baggage car containing war trophies of all kinds, such as American, French and German machine guns, helmets, gas masks, serial torpedoes, German rifles, Naval mines, hand grenades and hundreds of other interesting articles.”

One week later, “The First National Bank, of Barnegat, has on exhibition in their bank lobby a fine collection of souvenirs collected on the Meuse-Argonne front by 1st Lieutenant W.S. Sprague, of the 46th Coast Artillery U.S.A. The collection has among other things, German and Austrian rifles, privates and officers’ helmets, gas masks, shells used in various rifles and cannons. … Lieut. Sprague was formerly employed in First National Bank and has loaned this collection for exhibition in connection with the drive for the Victory Liberty Loan. … He personally gathered in these various relics from the battlefield, and is now back looking fine after his experience in pounding big shells at the huns.”

On May 1, according to the Beacon, “Rural communities throughout the entire Third Federal Reserve Districts are to have bigger and more spectacular methods of campaigning during the Victory Loan Drive than in any of the four preceeding loans.

“One of the biggest features is the flight of a huge naval dirigible, equipped with all its engines of destruction as used in actual warfare. This balloon will travel from its base near Philadelphia to the far corners of the district, making at least two flights each week of the campaign.

“During its daily flights it will be in the air twelve hours, half of which time will be spent in flying over the towns and communities far into the interior.”

There was hope this would be a special Memorial Day.

“The statement was given out officially at Washington last week that the 78th Division, otherwise known as the lightening division, which trained at Camp Dix, and is made up largely of New Jersey lads, has been assigned to an early convoy home. This means it will arrive in this country sometime in May or early June. The Ocean County drafted men are represented in the 311th Infantry, in this division, in larger numbers than in any other organization.”

But the Beacon reported that the homecoming would have to be separate.

“A meeting of the committee named by the Board of Freeholders to plan a ‘Home-Coming Day’ for the soldiers and sailors of the great war from Ocean County held on Thursday afternoon, decided to have the home-coming at Toms River, and on Labor Day if possible. The date may have to be later, depending on how the boys have reached home by that time. It is hoped to have everyone, or as many as possible of the 1200 Ocean County men (and women) in the service at this demonstration to have a parade, a dinner for the visitors, speech-making by some orator of national importance, music and an entertainment that will be talked about for years afterward. In fact, it is hoped to give the boys a home-coming that will show them how proud we are of them and their spirit.”

On May 22, the Beacon editorialized that Memorial Day had been passed to a new generation.

“We have ourselves just passed thru such another crisis. We have seen the young men of our day also rising at the call of their country. ‘Their eyes beheld the vision and the dream,’ but it was the vision of a free world, delivered from the wickedness of arbitrary power.

“When we lay flowers upon the graves of the older heroes, we shall have in mind the thousands of white crosses which mark American graves on the fields of France. And with our gratitude to them will come the hope that the world will be so much better thru their sacrifice that in time to come it may truly be said, ‘IT WAS WORTH THE PRICE.’”

So it was that waiting for the boys to come home, the Beacon reported, “Memorial Day in Tuckerton was the most quiet in many years, there being no special program as has been the custom in the past.

“Members of Ryerson Post, No. 77. G.A.R., held services at the graves of their departed comrades. … A few of the old-time thrills were witnessed at the Ball Park in the afternoon, where two games of baseball were played. The first was Barnegat High School vs. Tuckerton High School and resulted in a victory for the former. Score 8 to 4. … In the second game several of Tuckerton’s old line up composed a team in a game with the Naval team of the Radio Station. The local boys were beaten by the score of 10 to 2 … In the evening a record audience attended the vaudeville and moving pictures at the Palace Theatre.”

There was reason to rejoice, and the Trenton Times of May 30 announced, “Jersey heroes of the 311th Infantry will be discharged this afternoon. It will be impossible for them to reach their homes in time for the Memorial Day celebrations but it was announced by delegations that several communities will hold special welcoming receptions. Many towns will send automobiles to take their boys home.”

1919 was the year Memorial Day became a national day. For many in Ocean County, it was also liberty from the U.S. Army day!

Next Week: Changes.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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