Memorial Day 1919

Yesterday at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium, I delivered the following remarks at the Greater Lowell Veterans Council Memorial Day service.

For the past several years on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, we’ve made frequent mention of World War I in recognition of the centennial observance of that conflict. That war ended on November 11, 1918 making the first post-war Memorial Day observance in May 1919. It seems appropriate today to look back at how the city of Lowell observed this holiday 100 years ago.

Despite World War I having just ended, Memorial Day 1919 still focused on the Civil War. There were 55 Civil War veterans who participated in that day’s ceremonies which is impressive considering that the youngest of them would have been at least 75 years old. These veterans were known as GAR men which stood for Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of all Union veterans of the Civil War.

Memorial Day began for the GAR men with church services at 8:30am after which they dispersed to the city’s cemeteries to lay flowers upon the graves of their deceased comrades. In the early afternoon they returned to their headquarters at Memorial Hall which we know as the Pollard Memorial Library. There, they had lunch and socialized. At about 3pm, they would head for the South Common to form up for the big parade which was the highlight of Lowell’s Memorial Day observation. Besides the Civil War veterans, the parade featured veterans of the Spanish American War and numerous paramilitary organizations, bands, and civic groups such as the boy and girl scouts. There were also 175 veterans of the World War who marched.

The parade left the South Common at 4pm. The route followed Thorndike Street then turned right on Middlesex Street then left on Central and left again on Merrimack until it reached the Ladd and Whitney Monument. There the parade paused, while veterans of all wars formed up in ranks on the three sides of that grassy triangle and stood at attention while the honor guard fired a rifle salute and the bugler played taps. The parade then continued up Moody Street to Cabot where it turned left then another left on Merrimack to pass the reviewing stand which was at the side entrance of City Hall. The units were dismissed when they reached Dutton Street.

During the 20 years between the end of World War I and the start of World War II, as the remaining Civil War veterans passed from the scene, the focus of Memorial Day in Lowell shifted from a Civil War centric observance to one that recognized the sacrifice of all who gave their lives in service of the country.

Some of the rituals adopted during that time are familiar to us today. Soon after this building opened in 1922, all of the veterans organizations in the city began holding a joint memorial service here on the Sunday before Memorial Day. On Memorial Day itself, everyone would gather on the plaza outside to honor those service members who lost their lives at sea with a Water Service that launched a small boat filled with flowers into the river while taps was played and the honor guard fired a salute. In the morning of Memorial Day, different veterans organization would visit the city’s cemeteries to honor veterans buried in them. The Ladd and Whitney monument was always the site of a solemn ceremony remembering deceased veterans. And because an army travels on its stomach, lunch was always provided. Regrettably, the parade which once drew 7500 marchers and 75,000 spectators is no more.

While we all are disappointed about that, we should not grow discouraged. As General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, advised in his May 5, 1868 order that created Memorial Day as we know it, “In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”

More importantly General Logan added “If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.” So in the spirit of General Logan, thank you all for being here today to fulfill the solemn trust of honoring those who have given their lives in service of our country.

One Response to Memorial Day 1919

  1. Brian Chance says:

    As, what Eisenhower called, the military-industrial-complex, has grown to proportions he could not have foreseen and permeated the fabric of our society, the true observance of Memorial Day has faded.