Memorial Day arose in the aftermath of the Civil War, to honor the Union war dead. It was frequently called “Decoration Day” because flowers were laid at the graves of those who had died for the Union cause. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union veterans which at its height had nearly half a million members, was influential in establishing one specific day—May 30—for commemoration of the North’s Civil War dead. It is said that this day was selected because the flowers for decorating graves would by then be blooming throughout the country. By the 1890s, all of the northern states observed Memorial Day each year on May 30. (The states of the former Confederacy commemorated their war dead on a different date.)
In 1870, Hingham held an elaborate day of remembrance on June 17—the day the Town dedicated a monument to the memory of its Civil War dead. A thirty-foot obelisk of Quincy granite, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument stands on a hilltop in the center of Hingham Cemetery. It bears the names of 74 Hingham men who lost their lives in the war. Before the trees filled in, its site offered commanding views of the Harbor, World’s End, and Harbor islands, as can be seen from the early photograph and contemporaneous engraving above.
The details of the ceremony can be found in The Town of Hingham In the Late Civil War, by Fearing Burr, Jr., and George Lincoln, published in 1876. A “procession” during the dedication ceremonies was elaborate and inclusive. It was led by the Hingham police, two regiments of the state militia, the Weymouth Brass Band, and a drum corps. There followed three “divisions,” each of which followed a different route through town, first to Agricultural Hall to hear an oration by local luminary Solomon Lincoln (1804-1881), and from there to the cemetery. The procession included politicians, clergy, business leaders, schoolchildren, veterans, fraternal societies, police, firefighters, three brass bands, “citizens on foot,” “citizens in carriages,” and, poignantly, “orphans of deceased soldiers.
Solomon Lincoln was a well-known lawyer, Hingham’s representative in the General Court, and the author of Hingham’s first town history, published in 1827. Lincoln opened his speech acknowledging that “[w]e have assembled to-day with mingled emotions of sorrow and joy—sorrow for the patriot dead who gave their lives to their country, and joy in the triumph of the cause for which they fought.” Continuing with this theme, Lincoln added up the estimated 300,000 Union dead, 300,000 Confederate dead, and 400,000 “crippled or permanently disabled” to conclude that the war had a devastating personal impact on 1 million young men. But, he noted:
notwithstanding these painful facts, carrying sorrow and calamity into so many families, and cutting down the flower of the young men of the land, we are permitted to rejoice in the success of the great struggle for which they gave their lives to their country. In the providence of God, the great cause of the rebellion was irrevocably removed, and every inhabitant of the land thus redeemed can enjoy the pure air of freedom. Our martyred president seemed to have been an instrument in the hands of the Almighty to purify this nation, and by his emancipation proclamation to breathe into it the breath of life, and to stamp his own with immortality.
Ever the local historian, Lincoln noted that he was speaking on the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill and evoked Hingham’s role in prior wars:
I have said that this is a historic day. The erection of the Monument to the memory of our soldiers and sailors in the place where it stands, has an appropriateness which harmonizes well with our local historical associations. It stands amid the graves of our ancestors, the first settlers of the Town, whose valor was displayed at an early date in our history, in defending our infant settlement from hostile attacks. The men who, in Provincial times, united with the forces of the mother country to repel the incursions of the French, repose almost beneath its shadow. The heroes and patriots of the Revolution, in considerable numbers, found their final resting-place within its limits. That distinguished general whose name is conspicuous in our annals, and who merited and enjoyed the confidence of Washington, rests in this consecrated ground. . . . There, also, are the graves of many who bore arms in the war of 1812, by some called our second war of Independence.
Lincoln’s speech provides a hint that Hingham observed some form of Decoration or Memorial Day as early as 1870. When speaking of the Civil War graves near the new monument, he mentions that it has been “[b]ut a few days since the beautiful service was performed of decorating their burial places with flowers.”
No matter when Hingham started observing Memorial day, its services, speeches, and parades were well-established by the early 1900s, when we start to see photographic evidence. The Hingham Journal described the events of Memorial Day 1918, occurring as it did while the United States was at war—World War I would not end until six months later, in November 1918.
MEMORIAL DAY, 1918, passed down into history as one of deep significance. Everything seemed permeated with a deeper feeling than usual. The speeches, the parade, the prayers, were all filled with things reminding us of the great world conflict. The courtesy shown by Commander Wallace in sending a detachment of Marines, and of Captain Edgar in sending a platoon of blue jackets, was appreciated, and helped to make the parade a success. It was the largest and best parade seen in the town for many years.
One of the “blue jackets” was Howard Henderson (1895-1982), a young man from Hingham who graduated college in 1917 and enlisted in the United States Naval Reserves. Henderson exhaustively documented his life and his town in a series of photograph albums digitized and donated to the Society in 1996. These albums include pictures of the 1912 Hingham Memorial Day Parade (above) as well as the 1918 parade, in which he marched with his unit.
World War I (with 116,000 soldier deaths) changed Memorial Day from a commemoration of the Union dead to a remembrance of all those who died in the military service of the United States. This in turn transformed it into a holiday that was national in its appeal. In 1967, an Act of Congress made “Memorial Day” a federal holiday which one year later, in 1968, was moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May.
Hingham continues to observe Memorial Day every year and the 2022 ceremony will be held at Hingham Town Hall, starting at 11am.
Wonderful to think of Memorial Day within this rich local history context Paula. Thanks for pulling together these fascinating perspectives from our archives and town histories. Beautifully done.