Casting a light on Memorial Day

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[Tom Biederbeck] In the town where I live, there is a handsome Beaux Arts building with a glorious window above its entrance. This building is intricately tied to the origin of Memorial Day. Today is a good day to look inside and meet at the person who might have been most important in establishing a day to recognize those who gave their lives in service to the nation.

Bust by Frederick Ernst Triebel (1865–1944)

At the top of the stairs to the Greenhut Memorial Hall is a marble bust of John A. Logan, an Illinois Civil War general who, after the war, became a politician and the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. The GAR was a veterans organization and one of the first advocacy groups in the U.S. Besides promoting pensions and voting rights for vets, it was identified with a May holiday honoring Civil War dead.

That day began as Decoration Day and became today’s Memorial Day. The custom of decorating graves on May 30 originated right after the Civil War among the families of black veterans. In 1868, Logan proposed a national holiday. Surprising fact: It wasn’t until 1967 that Congress officially gave the name Memorial Day to the last Monday in May.

“Fraternity, Charity, Loyalty” were the watchwords of the Grand Army of the Republic. Reflecting on Memorial Day in 2012, the last of those three is striking: For the sake of loyalty, many of our fellow citizens lost their lives. Today we recognize our fraternity with the survivors. Their loss as our own. There’s charity in that.

The Grand Army of the Republic Greenhut Memorial Hall is located in Peoria, Ill. It was dedicated in 1909 as a meeting-place for the local chapter of the GAR. The property has been saved, preserved, restored, expanded and is now operated as a public resource by the Central Illinois Landmarks Foundation, an organization I serve as a board member.

Photos by Marvin Forssander-Baird

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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by William Ordaz on 05.29.12 at 8:34 am

    What an excellent and timely article! Well done Tom!

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