Originally called Decoration Day, the idea of a day to remember the men who died while serving in the military during the Civil War was conceived as a national celebration in 1868 by General John A. Logan.
Logan had served in the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war he returned to civilian life but remained active in veterans affairs. In 1868 he was chosen to be the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic.
The Grand Army
The G.A.R, as it was most frequently referred to, was an organization formed by veterans of the United States armed forces who served honorably in the Union Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Revenue Cutter Service (today’s Coast Guard). At one point there were nearly 500,000 members, all men except for two women.
The G.A.R.’s purpose was to link members together to share experiences during the war. It also had philanthropic goals and was politically active in support of Republicans. The G.A.R. lobbied for veterans’ benefits including pensions and the right to vote for African American veterans.
Laramie’s G.A.R. post was founded on August 30, 1878, and led by Post Commander John Donnellan who had been a Lieutenant Colonel during the war and commanded the 27th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. He was a respected businessman and banker. Two vice commanders were also chosen, George Harper and Charles Forrester.
Custer Post 1 also had a Ladies Auxiliary, which aided the post in its philanthropic endeavors. One of its main endeavors was the founding of the Laramie chapter of the Woman’s Relief Corp whose goals were to honor those who served in the Civil War, preserve records of the G.A.R. and to provide aid to widows and orphans of the fallen.
It was Donnellan’s successor J. H Kerns, who began to organize the ceremonies for the 1884 events marking Memorial Day. On May 8, G.A.R. Custer Post 1 formed a committee under Kerns’ direction to choose the venue, music, speakers, flowers and the overall program. Kerns and John Congdon were appointed to locate and mark all the graves of both Union and Confederate veterans in Greenhill Cemetery.
On May 30, the Boomerang used nearly all its page two to report on the day’s events. The article, titled “Strewn Flowers,” started off on an appropriately somber note. It said, “Memorial Day, one honored above all others in America, the blush of whose morn ever awakens in the patriotic heart memories of struggles past; of loved ones gone; of hopes buried; yet softened by the mellow sheen of priceless victories achieved, broke promisingly upon Laramie, after a chill and cloudy night.”
Chosen to lead the day’s procession were L. D. Pease and O. P. Yellon. Both had served in the Union Army and were esteemed citizens; Pease was a judge and legislator and Yellon served in several law enforcement positions.
Mounted on “dashing steeds” they started the procession at the intersection of 3rd and Center Streets (the latter now University Avenue). At 2nd Street they turned south and headed for Holliday’s opera house located just north of where the Library Sports Bar and Brewery is today. 800 of the 2700 residents in town followed in their wake.
Ten uniformed groups marched directly behind Pease and Yellon. They represented the Knights of Pythias, five companies of the Laramie fire department, two groups of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the G.A.R and the local men’s singing society the Laramie Maennechor.
Marching in time to muffled drums of the Laramie Coronet band, at the opera house the column entered the theater, which was decorated with a very large American flag and flags representing the units that marched in the parade. Past commanders of the G.A.R. were then seated on the stage along with the day’s orator, a quartet of the Laramie Maennechor and those ladies and gentlemen who were participants in the day’s events.
The Memorial Ceremony
After Dr. John Finfrock called the assembly to order, the ceremony was opened by the singing of the “Lord’s Own Day” followed by a prayer from Reverend William Hicks of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Following short recitations by Miriam Caldwell and Helen Bradshaw, the quartet sang “Firmly Stand My Native Land.”
Captain W. J. McIntyre, who had served in the Illinois 11th Infantry Regiment, then approached the podium and began his oration marking the day. The speech was printed in its entirety in the Boomerang. McIntyre opened his presentation with three pertinent sentences, “This day is dedicated to the heroic dead of the Republic. We meet here today prompted by sacred and patriotic motives. We are gathered together as a link in the chain of gratitude stretched across the union, from Atlantic to Pacific, and welded together by the blood of half a million men, who died so that their country could live.”
McIntyre continued with praise for those who served and noted that they built the foundation for building the future of the republic. He also commended the women who supported their loved ones during the conflict, noting that they suffered too.
Captain McIntyre closed his speech noting that the sacred memories should live on and be a “beacon light” to guide the Republic upward and onward to “greatness and grandeur.”
March to the Cemetery
The ceremony concluded with a benediction by Reverend W. E. Hamilton. The marching units, led by the Odd Fellows and the G. A. R., proceeded up Center Street to the cemetery where the veterans placed flowers on the graves of those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice. They then formed a hollow square around the monument.
Post Commander Kern offered a short address and the men sang “Nearer My God to Thee” followed by “My Country Tis of Thee.” After a benediction by the post chaplain the column fell into formation and marched back to town.
The Boomerang continued the article with a listing of the veterans interred in Greenhill Cemetery. Union: J.T. Donahoe, C. B. Wynne, John Brammer, John Metcalf, William Bath, Byron Porter, Henry Rheinbold, James Roberts, Edwin Crout, T.A. Boice, William Byers, G. W. Leathe and Charles Stewart. Confederates: A. T. Williams, Thomas Shanks and James Ellis. Finally, they listed the names of the 55 members of Custer Post 1.
Over the course of the years, the G.A.R. continued to sponsor Memorial Day events. In 1922, for example, Custer Post 1 commander William Brandis published a notice in the Laramie Republican newspaper calling on all veterans of the Civil War, Indian Wars, Spanish American War and WW I to participate in Memorial Day events.
That same year post adjutant E. E. Fitch noted that John Friend had died the preceding year and that there were only 13 surviving members of Custer Post 1. Information at the American Heritage Center seems to indicate that number had fallen to nine in 1935, seventy years after the end of the Civil War.
Despite the passing of the last members of the G. A. R., we continue to honor the tradition they established. While Congress changed the date in 1968 from May 30th to the last Monday in May, the sentiment remains the same; we pay homage to those service men who lost their lives in the service to their country.
2019 Memorial Day Observations
Laramie veterans’ organizations will again mark Memorial Day with a full slate of activities. On Saturday May 25th, flags will be placed on the graves of deceased veterans. On Monday brief services will be held at Harmony Gardens west of Laramie on highway 230 at 8:00 a.m., at the Laramie River Bridge on West Garfield Street 8:30 and at the Veterans Flagpole at the courthouse at 9:00 a.m.
The main service will be at Greenhill Cemetery at the Grand Army of the Republic monument at 10:00 a.m. under the direction of Lee Killian of Laramie V.F.W. Post 2221. Members of the V.F.W., American Legions Husted-Pendleton Post 14 and Auxiliary and the Marine Corps League will participate and pay tribute to their fallen comrades.
By Kim Viner
Caption: Grand Army of the Republic memorial monument at Greenhill Cemetery. Photo by Kim Viner
Caption: Plaque presented by the Woman’s Relief Corps Auxiliary. The Department of Colorado and Wyoming was the next higher organization in the chain of command of Laramie’s Custer Post 1. The plaque was discovered by Roy Torres, head of maintenance at the Albany County courthouse, while preparing for the upcoming renovation of the north entrance of the building. Photo by Roy Torres.