by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was more than strange to hear someone on television a couple of days ago sign off a program by wishing viewers a “Happy Memorial Day.” This probably reflects the fact that the Memorial Day holiday weekend has become, for many, more about enjoying time off and opening the summer season than reflecting upon the sacrifices of those Americans who died in the service of the country.
Looking back in history through artifacts in the Homestead’s collection serves a variety of purposes, not the least of which is to compare and contrast how people of the past looked at aspects of life, such as the commemoration (rather than “celebration”) of Memorial Day, to how we do so today.
Today’s highlighted object from the museum’s holdings is a program for a Memorial Day observance in 1909 under the organization of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union Army veterans organization established after the Civil War, at Temple Auditorium (built by the Temple Baptist Church) in Los Angeles. The ceremony was one of the many being held in the city and region on that day, 31 May.
The event was part of a series that took place with the G.A.R. in charge, including a parade and exercises held at Central Park (renamed Pershing Square in 1919 to honor World War I American Expeditionary Force commander General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing), where veterans of the Spanish-American War also had a ceremony that day at a monument to those who fought in that conflict and which still stands in the park.
The Los Angeles Herald in its issue of the next day stated that, as veterans gathered at the park, “the aged soldiers with gleaming eyes and a military bearing that the years since they marched to martial music have not diminished,” wore their blue uniforms and remembered “the days when other comrades were present and helped to swell the fast-thinning ranks.” It was 44 years since the end of the Civil War and the youngest of these men were around 60 years of age.
Then, at 2 p.m., some 850 persons entered Temple Auditorium, which was completed in 1906 where a previous theater, Hazard’s Pavilion, operated for about twenty years, across the street from the park and located at the corner of Fifth and Olive streets, for the program. reported
Seldom, if ever before, has the big auditorium which faces Central Park presented a more inspiring scene than yesterday afternoon, when Grand Army veterans, Sons of Veterans, and members of the Women’s Relief Corps met to celebrate [?] Memorial day.
What gave additional inspiration to the scene were the faces of the grim, old warriors . . . Responsive to every thrill as it burst forth in patriotic fervor and tumultuous applause, these old men colored to the roots of their gray hair and their eyes grew moist, as in this timid, blushing manner, they acknowledged the tributes and received the merited encomiums of a succeeding generation.
When the attendees filed in to the theater, “the veterans marched into the auditorium by posts, the Women’s Relief corps followed the post to which they are attached,” with the former seated at the center and the latter “deployed” to the sides and rear, which “presented a pretty picture.” Assembly was then sounded by the Veteran Drum and Fife Corps under charge of Comrade C.H. Hazeldine, followed by the call to order by Grand Marshal Thomas P. Lyon, who introduced Captain Newton C. Whims as President of the Day.
After a bugle call by Comrade O.T. Thomas, Luelle Mayne Windsor, a soprano, sang “Our Starry Flag.” Methodist minister Will Knighten, a GAR comrade, presented the invocation. The Veteran Drum Corps Orchestra, led by Comrade G.W. Wolfe, then performed “The Vacant Chair,” a Civil War poem by Henry Washburn set to music in 1862 by George Root and a standard played at Memorial Day events.
Then the Herald observed,
A pathetic but impressive feature of the program was when the eighth number was reached, this being assigned to Comrade F.A. Werth, who recently died. He was to have sung “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Captain Whims, referring tenderly to the comrade who had passed away, asked the audience to stand in silence a couple of minutes in honor of his memory, which they did and remained standing while Prof. J.B. Poulin sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the audience joining in the refrain.
Following this was a particularly interesting portion of the program as Colonel Allen Allensworth came forward to read the Gettysburg Address. The paper simply noted that Allensworth was “a colored veteran” who rendered the recitation “very effectively.”
His story is remarkable in that he fled slavery by joining an Illinois volunteer regiment during the Civil War and then enlisting in the Navy as a steward and clerk. He became a pastor and military chaplain, retiring from service in 1906 and settling in Los Angeles. The year before his appearance at the Memorial Day commemoration he founded the all-black settlement in the Central Valley that bore his name. Though Allensworth did not last long and its founder was killed by a motorcycle while crossing a street in Monrovia in 1914, part of the town is now a state historic park.
Professor John Haae Zinck, a music teacher and tenor, gave a rendition of “Beloved Columbia and was followed by the day’s oration given by Webster Davis, a former mayor of Kansas City, Missouri and Assistant Secretary of the Interior under William McKinley (though his tenure was cut short after his support for the Boers in the wars raging in South Africa led to a forced resignation.)
Well known for his speaking skills, Davis delivered an address that the Herald reported was “notable for its intense patriotism” and “its defense of the rights of the aged soldiers.” The paper added that “many of the veterans wept and at times there was hardly a face in the vast audience that was not lighted with the gleam of a tear as it stole its way down some furrowed or dimpled cheek.”
Davis, who was born in 1861 when the war erupted, began by intoning:
Commander and Veterans: You were called on to take part in the most terrible war of the nineteenth century. There have been wars of longer duration but none more terrible than that war of neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother and father against son . . .
These men together with their comrades sacrificed everything, the comforts of home and the hope and happiness of the future. They offered their services and lives for the service of their country. And I cannot help but wonder is it possible that this remnant of old, crippled veterans is all that is left of that once wonderful army—the greatest army in the world? And are these the strong, rugged young Americans who saved the Union nearly half a century ago? . . .
We rejoice today that we live in a mighty republic—a land of freedom and equality of rights; a land wherein every American boy is heir to a kingdom, and the boundary of that kingdom is the limit of his personal capacity [one wonders what Allensworth and the women present thought of these words] . . .
And this is the result of the heroic work of the defenders of the Union. Had they failed the Union would have been dissolved, the silver cord loosed, the golden bowl broken at the fountain; rival confederacies at war with each other, ferocious factions struggling for supremacy; hate, malice and treachery rampant, with one flag here and the other yonder, while “Old Glory” would be folded up and laid away among the memorials that preserve the memory of the dead republics . . .
The men who fought each other in the Civil War are now friends; their feelings, convictions and interests are in such harmony on questions of national import that they realize they are all American . . .
Banishing remembrance of the anger of the past and uniting their spirit and pride to the traditions of the nation, they had pledged themselves to its future power and glory . . .
As one people, with one flag, one country and one destiny, let us stand together and meet with courage and wisdom the problems of the future. Let loyalty and patriotism be the virtues that shall ever blossom in the hearts of our united people.
With Davis’ ringing speech ended, the audience sang “America” and “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” and the event concluded.
On this Memorial Day, it is remarkable to recall that, while the 1909 Memorial Day event was held 44 years after the conclusion of the Civil War, we are not exactly that many years removed from the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. Gatherings now of veterans of that controversial conflict would be very different in some ways and strikingly similar in others to that described in the Herald‘s coverage 110 years ago.