by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In 1868, General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), a group of Union Army veterans of the recently concluded Civil War, called for each 30 May to be a commemoration of the over 620,000 dead soldiers from both sides of the war.
Decoration Day, as it was called, was to be one in which Americans decorated the graves of fallen troops. It was said that the date was selected because it was one of the few in the year that was not the anniversary of a Civil War battle. It is also noted that the end of May was a time when spring flowers were in full bloom, making it an opportune time for the decoration of soldiers’ graves.
Notably, Logan appears to have gotten the idea from informal efforts of women’s associations in the South to decorate the final resting places of Confederate soldiers, though there wasn’t a set date and the observances varied considerably from state to state. Notably, there are nine states that still observe a Confederate Memorial Day.
Decoration Day was recognized immediately by many people and twenty-seven states participated that first year along with several thousand persons in attendance at a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, established on the former plantation of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Within a quarter century, all of the states in the nation made Decoration Day a holiday for those who died in the Civil War.
After World War I, the holiday evolved into Memorial Day to honor those who died in all of America’s military conflicts, though the official name remained Decoration Day. In 1968, Congress passed a law establishing its observance on the last Monday of May, followed by making the observance day a federal holiday three years later.
Yet, there were many who objected to the change in date, including veterans’ organizations who protested that Americans would look upon the holiday as the long weekend that kicks off the summer and lose sight of the purpose of the observance. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii continued at the start of every congressional term until his death six years ago to introduce a bill restoring the 30 May date.
On 1 May 1923, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was opened as a tribute to Los Angeles veterans of the First World War, so it was natural that the venue would be used for Memorial Day ceremonies. Today’s post highlights an artifact from the museum’s collection: a program for the 1928 Memorial Day ceremony at the stadium. The commemoration was sponsored by a dozen groups, including the G.A.R.; National Indian War Veterans; United Spanish War Veterans; American Legion; two groups of disabled veterans of the First World War; Veterans of Foreign Wars; and others.
When publicity was first issued for the event, it was stated in the Los Angeles Times that “50,000 patriots” were expected to be on hand for the 30 May commemoration. It turned out that less than a third attended, according to the paper’s coverage in its issue of the following day. The Times stated, “More than 15,000 persons gathered in the Coliseum, where the city’s official Memorial Day observance took place. It was . . . described by John Steven McGroarty, speaker of the day, as “a most inspiring thing, this gathering to honor our heroic dead.”
The program for the event was a little over two hours long from about 1:30 to just past 3:30 p.m. It began with fifteen minutes of the singing of Civil War songs by veteran Otto Ploetz, with piano accompanist Lu Verne Beale. A military parade led by the event’s grand marshal and staff was to be followed by an invocation, but the Times reported that the latter was offered prior to the entrance of the parade participants.
Readings of Logan’s Decoration Day proclamation and President Abraham Lincoln’s famed Gettysburg Address were then given by members of the Grand Army of the Republic, followed by the presentation of distinguished guests, officers of foreign militaries, and recipients of the Medal of Honor. Ten minutes of songs from the Spanish-American War were presented by the same duo who performed earlier in the program, followed by an oration of roughly a half-hour by McGroarty.
In his day, McGroarty was an acclaimed poet, magazine publisher, and playwright, best known for his wildly popular Mission Play, a highly romanticized three-hour performance staged for years at San Gabriel. Walter P. Temple was, along with Henry E. Huntington, the largest individual donor to the construction of the Mission Playhouse, which opened in 1927 and still offers performances near the mission. McGroarty was also renowed as a speaker and made some interesting remarks at the Memorial Day event.
He rhetorically inquired, “What did these soldiers die for? Did it do any good? Aye, we have a nation to be proud of for it.” He then averred:
In all its history, our nation never waged a war of conquest. It along of all the great nations of the world has not done so. If we wished to build an empire what power on earth could stop us? But we have other ideals and goals.
In going over the several wars fought by the United States, McGroarty highlighted the ideals of freedom, the battles against tyranny and the betterment of humankind as the reasons why the country engaged in military conflict. Many in Mexico, Hawaii, Cuba, the Phillipines and other nations, as well as native American Indians, would offer impassioned rebuttals to McGroarty’s rhetoric, which was and continues to be commonplace in our country.
After McGroarty’s speech, there was a review of the 160th Infantry of the California National Guard which “presented a magnificent spectacle”, the playing of the Star Spangled Banner and the sounding of taps by Otto Mashek of the United Spanish War Veterans.
It is interesting that the back panel of the program has statements about the contribution of Los Angeles County’s “youth” and “manhood” during “every national emergency that has arisen” while the industrial and agricultural products of the region “have contributed materially to every victory.” The document then offered that
Los Angeles County in time of peace, has been an even greater factor in contributing to the Nation’s peace-time prosperity. It leads—and has led for a number of years—all counties of the nation in agricultural production. Last year this production amounted to $1,278,435,377.
This combination of patriotism with boosterism and promotion continued with statistics on the county population (2,319,828 souls) industrial employment, payrolls, output, and tons and value of cargo through the “world renowned harbor.” The document then concluded by noting that the county’s
scenic beauty and multitude of places to play out of doors the year ’round are attracting thousands yearly, thereby helping build up a peace-time army of young manhood and womanhood to carry on the great tasks of our Nation.
Decoration Day has evolved into Memorial Day and Memorial Day has morphed to some people more as a general holiday and the opening weekend of summer (as those veterans groups and Sen. Inouye felt). Yet, there are still many Americans who take the time during the day to go to cemeteries to lay flowers and decorate graves, attend ceremonies and commemorations, or individually remember the ultimate sacrifice American soldiers made, whether our nation’s wars are considered noble or unjust.