Memorial Day in Waterloo

Memorial Day in Waterloo

Memorial Day has become an unofficial marker of the start of summer in the United States. The holiday, celebrated on the last Monday in May and originally called “Decoration Day,” stems from efforts to honor the memories of soldiers killed during the Civil War by adorning gravestones with flowers and flags.

In 1868, General John Logan, commander of the Union veterans group Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Orders No. 11, or the Memorial Day Act. It is thought that May 30 was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime,” the order read. “Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance.”

In the years and decades that followed Logan’s order, scholars have pointed to several towns that were among the first to organize Memorial Day celebrations, or to have groups of citizens decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. Among them are Columbus, Georgia; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Charleston, South Carolina; Columbus, Mississippi; and Waterloo, New York.

The debate about which location was first is not fully resolved. However, a Congressional resolution and proclamation from President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 recognized Waterloo for starting the tradition, calling attention to the town for holding its 100th Memorial Day celebration.

The OLI (Operational Land Imager) on Landsat 8 captured this image of Waterloo on April 26, 2024. The town is located between Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake, two of the Finger Lakes. The brown area near the bottom of the image is the defunct Seneca Army Depot, a munitions storage and disposal facility that has become a haven for a large herd of white deer.

In its first observance, on May 5, 1866, the “village was decorated with flags at half-mast and draped with evergreens and mourning black,” according to Waterloo’s website. In an event organized by pharmacist Henry Welles and General John Murray, “veterans, civic societies, and residents, led by General Murray, marched to the strains of martial music to the three village cemeteries.”

Fifty-eight men from Waterloo died during the Civil War. A local history group has published short biographies of these men on its website. Many of them were honored during Waterloo’s first Memorial Day service.

“Let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor,” the original Memorial Day proclamation from Logan read. “Let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the nation’s gratitude—the soldier’s and sailor's widow and orphan.”

NASA Earth Observatory image by Wanmei Liang, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Adam Voiland.

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