On May 5, 1868, Major General John A. Logan, the head of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, declared Decoration Day as a time for the nation to honor the U.S. Civil War dead. Logan declared that the day should be observed on May 30 and that the soldiers’ graves be decorated with flowers.
The veterans’ organization held the first observance that year at Arlington National Cemetery. Various Washington officials presided over the event, including General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant. By the end of the 19th century, communities throughout the country staged Decoration Day festivities.
Civil War veteran Oney F. Sweet — featured in What the Private Saw: The Civil War Letters & Diaries of Oney Foster Sweet — marched in many Decoration Day parades.
His son, Oney Fred Sweet, wrote a poem about the parades; the poem appeared in The National Tribune on May 24, 1906.
There’s the chirp of birds in the pinetree tops
And there’s morning dew in the grass.
The streets lined with those who’ve come
To watch the procession pass.
There’s the grand old Flag that floats ahead,
There’s children with flowers of May
There’s daddy hobbling with the “boys”—
’Tis Decoration Day.
No wonder that garden and field and wood
Have given their fairest blooms;
No wonder the petals and leaves leap high
Beside the soldiers’ tombs.
No wonder the village band plays sweet
As they wind along their way;
No wonder the skies are blue above—
’Tis Decoration Day.
But there’s sort of a look in daddy’s face
And the “boys” that go halting by,
As though their thoughts were drifting on
To another earth and sky.
For their minds are back to the youthful time
When they marched as boys away
And they’re pondering ’bout where they’ll all be
Next Decoration Day.
Following World War I, the day became known as Memorial Day in honor of those who had died in all U.S. wars. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day as a national holiday, which is now celebrated on the last Monday in May.
This information and poem are excerpted from the recently released book, What the Private Saw: The Civil War Letters & Diaries of Oney Foster Sweet.
Memorial Day Event
On this coming Memorial Day, May 25, 2015, a ceremony will be held at Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego by the local chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the U.S. Civil War. It begins at 1:00 p.m. More than 1,200 Civil War veterans are buried at the cemetery.
The featured speaker will be Bill Ketchum, great-grandson of Oney Foster Sweet and a veteran himself. He will honor veterans of all U.S. wars, Union and Confederate, men and women.
The cemetery is located at 3751 Market Street, San Diego, CA 92102, between the I-15 and I-805 freeways.
- Book presentation and signing, date and time to be announced. Featured speakers: Larry Edwards, editor of What the Private Saw; Gene Armistead, author of Horses and Mules in the Civil War; Pedro Garcia, author of Port Hudson: Last Bastion on the Mississippi and Raising the Northern Blockade: Submarine Warfare in the Civil War; Bill Ketchum, publisher of Trumpets of the Morning. Te Mana Café, 4956 Voltaire St., San Diego, CA 92107 (Ocean Beach), (619) 255-9233. http://www.temanacafe.com
- Old-Fashioned Independence Day Festival, Saturday, June 27, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Featured speakers: Bill Ketchum, great-grandson of Oney Foster Sweet, and Larry Edwards, editor of What the Private Saw. Location: Rancho San Diego Library, 11555 Via Rancho San Diego, El Cajon, CA 92019, (619) 660-5370. http://www.sdcl.org/locations_RD.html
- San Diego Civil War Round Table, October 21, 2015, 8 p.m.: Guest speakers: Larry Edwards, editor of What the Private Saw: The Civil War Letters & Diaries of Oney Foster Sweet, and Bill Ketchum, great-grandson of Oney Foster Sweet. Location: Palisades Presbyterian Church, 6301 Birchwood St, San Diego, CA 92120, in the Allied Gardens area.
- What the Private Saw: The Civil War Letters & Diaries of Oney Foster Sweet
- Map to Mount Hope Cemetery
- Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
- Horses and Mules in the Civil War
- Port Hudson: Last Bastion on the Mississippi
- Raising the Northern Blockade: Submarine Warfare in the Civil War
- Trumpets of the Morning