In a small, dimly lit back room of the Onondaga Historical Association in Syracuse, New York, is a unique and priceless treasure…a civil-war era decorative eagle. [It is] made entirely out of hair, contributed by leading politicians, and their wives, most notably…President Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. The artifact came about when the US Sanitary Commission, a volunteer agency working for the health of Union soldiers during the war, needed money for its efforts. [They] reached out to President Lincoln soliciting, a lock of hair as large as he [could] spare. Lincoln communicated the request to other members of the parliament and a surprisingly large number of politicians, and their wives, responded positively. [They donated] their hair for the Brooklyn jewelers Spies & Champney to weave a national symbol out of it.
The large showpiece, nicknamed the Hairy Eagle, featured an American eagle, perched on top of half a globe, spreading its wings and, surrounded with swirls and flowers. The eagle’s head was made from Lincoln’s hair, its back, from Vice President Hannibal Hamlin’s hair, its beak, from Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase’s hair and, its wings, from the various senators’ hair. The wives’ hair, meanwhile, was used to create the floral arrangement, surmounted by the eagle and globe. The eagle became an immediate attraction when it was debuted at Metropolitan Sanitary Fair, organized to raise funds for the benefit of Union soldiers. Running for three weeks in April 1864, the fair featured events, attractions, auctions, raffles and more. For the entry fee of $2, visitors could view spectacular floral arrangements in the Temple of Flora, watch dances performed by the Fair’s Native American Troupe, enjoy Dutch cuisine at the Knickerbocker Kitchen and even buy a piece of Plymouth Rock. Tens of thousands of people visited the Hairy Eagle during this time. Underneath it, a small visitor book was kept, in which guests were able to sign their name on the payment of one dollar. The goal was to raise $1,000.
It’s not known whether the goal of $1000 and 1000 signatures was reached but, reports of the fair compiled three years later noted that the book was so popular that, 400 signatures and $400 were collected within the first three days of the Fair. The Hairy Eagle was meant to be presented to the Lincolns as a gift after the fair ended but, the wreath never made its way to the White House. Instead, it hung in the window of the Champney & Smitten shop in Brooklyn for many years before disappearing for decades. In the 1920s, F.T. Champney’s wife Ida donated the eagle to Onondaga Historical Association, where it has remained ever since.
Civil War Era Eagle Sculpture (Smithsonian Magazine/Jason Emerson/September 23, 2021)
Memorial Day, as celebrated, has come and gone. The weekend BBQs and party gatherings are over. Some folks have returned to work after their Monday off while others took the entire week off and, possibly, headed to the beach to herald the “summer season”. I am posting, today, because from 1868 to 1970, Memorial Day was observed on May 30.
Our American Memorial Day has quite a rich, lengthy history and one that has its own area of research. Columbus State University in Georgia has a Center For Memorial Day Research and the University of Mississippi in Oxford has The Center For Civil War Research that covers Memorial Day in their data.
So, what IS the origin of our Memorial Day? That’s a good question and the following took two days to research.
May we remember them, ALL. ~Vic
Warrenton, Virginia 1861
A newspaper article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1906 reflects Warrenton‘s claims that the first Confederate Memorial Day was June 3, 1861…the location of the first Civil War soldier’s grave ever to be decorated.
Arlington Heights, Virginia 1862
On April 16, 1862, some ladies and a chaplain from Michigan […] proposed gathering some flowers and laying them on the graves of the Michigan soldiers that day. They did so and the next year, they decorated the same graves.
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 1863
The November 19, 1863, cemetery dedication at Gettysburg was a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. Some have, therefore, claimed that President Abraham Lincoln was the founder of Memorial Day.
Knoxville, Tennessee 1865
The first decoration of the graves of Union soldiers of which there is any record was witnessed by Surgeon Fred W. Byers, of the [96th] Illinois volunteer infantry, now surgeon general of the National Guard of the State of Wisconsin (Spring 1865).
Jackson, Mississippi 1865
The incident in Mrs. [Sue Landon Adams] Vaughan’s life, which assured her name a permanent place in history, occurred at Jackson […] when she founded Decoration Day by first decorating the graves of Confederate and Federal soldiers alike, in a Jackson cemetery on April 26, 1865.
Charleston, South Carolina 1865
On May 1, 1865, in Charleston, recently freed African-Americans reburied Union soldiers originally buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. The event was reported in Charleston and northern newspapers and, some historians today cite it as “the first Decoration Day.”
Columbus, Mississippi 1866
Thus was established a custom which has become national in its adoption – Decoration Day – having its origin with the ladies of Columbus. Columbus also claims the distinction of being the first to decorate the graves of both Confederate and Federal soldiers, alike (Friendship Cemetery April 25, 1866). [See the poem The Blue & The Gray by Francis Miles Finch}
Columbus, Georgia 1866
To the State of Georgia belongs the credit of having inaugurated what has since become the universal custom of decorating annually the graves of the heroic dead. The initial ceremonies which ushered Memorial Day into life were held in Linnwood Cemetery, at Columbus, on April 26, 1866.
Memphis, Tennessee 1866
Yesterday was the day appointed throughout the South as a day of sweet remembrance for our brothers who now sleep their last long sleep, the sleep of death. That day (the 26th day of April) has, and will be, set apart, annually, as a day to be commemorated by all the purely Southern people in the country, as that upon which we are to lay aside our usual vocations of life and, devote to the memory of our friends, brothers, husbands and sons, who have fallen in our late struggle for Southern independence.
Carbondale, Illinois 1866
A stone marker in Carbondale claims that place as the location of the first Decoration Day, honoring the Union soldiers buried there. General John A. Logan, who would later become commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the largest of the Union veterans’ organizations, officiated at the ceremony (April 29, 1866).
Waterloo, New York 1866
On Saturday, May 5, 1866, the first complete observance of what is now known as Memorial Day was held in Waterloo. On May 26, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson designated an “official” birthplace of the holiday by signing the presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, New York, as the holder of the title.
Richmond, Virginia 1866
The anniversary of the death of Stonewall Jackson was observed to-day by floral decorations of the graves of Confederate soldiers at Hollywood and Oakwood (May 10, 1866).
May 3, 1866 [they] formed the Ladies’ Hollywood Memorial Association, with the immediate aim of caring for and commemorating the graves of Confederate soldiers. All disposed to co-operate with us will repair, in such groups and at such hours as may be convenient, on Thursday, May 31st, 1866, to Hollywood Cemetery, to mark, by every appropriate means in our power, our sense of the heroic services and sacrifices of those who were dear to us in life and we honored in death.
Petersburg, Virginia 1866
It was in May of this year, 1866, that we inaugurated, in Petersburg, the custom, now universal, of decorating the graves of those who fell in the Civil War. Our intention was simply to lay a token of our gratitude and affection upon the graves of the brave citizens who fell June 9, 1864, in defence of Petersburg…
Southern Appalachian Decoration Day
From The Bitter Southerner:
Dinner on the grounds is not a phrase I hear these days. Just reading the phrase takes me back to those times with my grandmother at her church on […] Decoration Day Sunday. I grew up in north Alabama in the 1960s. Dinner on the grounds was a special occasion that followed the work of cleaning up the graveyard and placing fresh flowers beside the headstones. It provided a time to remember and celebrate the lives of the dear departed. ~Betsy Sanders
Today, we are here to eat, remember and bask in the Southern fascination of death […]. It’s Decoration Day. The South claims death with as much loyalty as we claim our children. J.T. Lowery, a former pastor […] misses when Decoration Day meant keeping company with headstones during dinner on the ground. Opal Flannigan is depending on women […] to uphold a tradition so old it’s hard to say when it emerged. German and Scots-Irish immigrants who birthed much of the Southern Appalachia’s culture in Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas likely brought these traditions [with them]. ~Jennifer Crossley Howard
From UNC Press Blog:
Many rural community cemeteries in western North Carolina hold “decorations.” A decoration is a religious service in the cemetery when people decorate graves to pay respect to the dead. The group assembles at outdoor tables, sometime in an outdoor pavilion, for the ritual “dinner on the ground.” There are variations of this pattern but, the overall pattern is fairly consistent.
Nationwide Observance 1868
In 1866, veterans of the Union army formed the beginnings of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization designed expressly to provide aid, comfort and political advocacy for veterans’ issues in post-war America. In 1868, the leadership of the G. A. R. sought through the following order to have the various local and regional observances of decorating soldier graves made into something like a national tradition.
Headquarters Grand Army Of The Republic
Adjutant-General’s Office, 446 Fourteenth St.
Washington, D. C., May 5, 1868.
General Orders No. 11.
From The History Channel:
By proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, the first major Memorial Day observance is held to honor those who died “in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Known to some as “Decoration Day,” mourners honored the Civil War dead by decorating their graves with flowers. On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.
The 1868 celebration was inspired by local observances that had taken place in various locations in the three years since the end of the Civil War. In fact, several cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, including Columbus, Mississippi; Macon, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; and Carbondale, Illinois. In 1966, the federal government, under the direction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. They chose Waterloo, which had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866, because the town had made Memorial Day an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and, residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
By the late 19th century, many communities across the country had begun to celebrate Memorial Day and, after World War I, observers began to honor the dead of all of America’s wars. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be celebrated the last Monday in May. Today, Memorial Day is celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave. It is customary for the president or vice president to give a speech honoring the contributions of the dead and to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. More than 5,000 people attend the ceremony annually. Several Southern states continue to set aside a special day for honoring the Confederate dead, which is usually called Confederate Memorial Day.
In a combined operation with the ironclad ram CSS Albemarle, Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke, attacked the Federal garrison at Plymouth, North Carolina, on April 17. On April 19, the ram appeared in the river, sinking the USS Southfield, damaging the USS Miami and driving off the other Union Navy ships (USS Ceres & USS Whitehead) supporting the Plymouth garrison. Confederate forces captured Fort Comfort, driving defenders into Fort Williams. On April 20, the garrison surrendered.
Construction of the ironclad began in January 1863 and continued on during the next year. Word of the gunboat reached the Union naval officers stationed in the region, raising an alarm. They appealed to the War Department for an overland expedition to destroy the ship, to be christened Albemarle after the body of water into which the Roanoke emptied but, the Union Army never felt it could spare the troops needed to carry out such a mission. It was a decision that would prove to be very short-sighted.
In April 1864, the newly commissioned Confederate States Steamer Albemarle, under the command of Captain James W. Cooke, got underway down-river toward Plymouth, North Carolina. Its mission was to clear the river of all Union vessels so that General Robert F. Hoke‘s troops could storm the forts located there.
[…] two paddle steamers, USS Miami and USS Southfield, lashed together with spars and chains, approached from up-river, attempting to pass on either side of Albemarle in order to trap her between them.
Captain Cooke turned heavily to starboard, getting outboard of [the] Southfield but, running dangerously close to the southern shore. Turning back sharply into the river, he rammed the Union side-wheeler, driving her under. Albemarle’s ram became trapped in Southfield’s hull from the force of the blow and her bow was pulled under as well. As [the] Southfield sank, she rolled over before settling on the riverbed. This action released the death grip that held the new Confederate ram.
Miami fired a shell into Albemarle at point-blank range while she was trapped by the wreck of Southfield but, the shell rebounded off Albemarle’s sloping iron armor and exploded on [the] Miami, killing her commanding officer, Captain Charles W. Flusser. Miami’s crew attempted to board Albemarle to capture her but, were soon driven back by heavy musket fire. [The] Miami then steered clear of the ironclad and escaped into Albemarle Sound.
With the river now clear of Union ships, and with the assistance of Albemarle’s rifled cannon, General Hoke attacked and took Plymouth and, the nearby forts.
From The History Channel:
Confederate forces attack Plymouth, North Carolina, in an attempt to recapture ports lost to the Union two years before. The four-day battle ended with the fall of Plymouth but, the Yankees kept the city bottled up with a flotilla on nearby Albemarle Sound.
In 1862, the Union captured Plymouth and several other points along the North Carolina coast. In doing so, they deprived the Confederacy of several ports for blockade-runners and the agricultural products from several fertile counties. In the spring of 1864, the Confederates mounted a campaign to reverse these defeats. General George Pickett led a division to the area and launched a failed attack on New Bern in February. Now, General Robert Hoke assumed command and moved his army against Plymouth, fifty miles north of New Bern. He planned an attack using the C.S.S. Albemarle, an ironclad that was still being built on the Roanoke River inland from Plymouth.
With 7,000 men, Hoke attacked the 2,800-man Union garrison at Plymouth on April 17. His troops began to capture some of the outer defenses but, he needed the Albemarle to bomb the city from the river. The ironclad moved from its makeshift shipyard on April 17 but, it was still under construction. With workers aboard, Captain James Cooke moved down the Roanoke. The Albemarle‘s rudder broke and the engine stalled, so it took two days to reach Plymouth. When it arrived, the Rebel ship took on two Yankee ships, sinking one and forcing the other to retreat. With the ironclad on the scene, Hoke’s men captured Plymouth on April 20.
The Rebel victory was limited by the fact that the Albemarle was still pinned in the Roanoke River.