Memorial Day: It’s Also Community Day
Memorial Day is, of course, the day we honor our nation’s veterans. But it is also, as the son of a Civil War veteran from Crown Point once said, “our own community day.” Every town will celebrate it, but every town will celebrate it in its own way. This weekend, when we attend the ceremonies in our own hometowns, in all likelihood we shall find that little has changed since we stood in the same places thirty years ago. The parades will follow the same routes to the cemeteries. The same rites will be re- enacted. Only we change. “The statues of the abstract Union soldier grow slimmer and younger each year,” as the poet Robert Lowell put it.
Unlike the Fourth of July, which was decreed a national day of celebration even before we had achieved independence, Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, as it used to be called, was initiated by the towns themselves. In 1866, a town in upstate New York chose a day in May to decorate the graves of Union soldiers. Other towns followed suit, and New York declared May 30 a legal holiday in 1873.
The Union armies were comprised of regiments and companies raised entirely from single regions. It was not uncommon for a small town to find that it had lost an entire generation of young men in one day – as Dryden, New York did at Gettysburg. Of the 1,100 men who joined the famous Adirondack Regiment, only three hundred returned at the war’s end. That regiment contained three companies from towns in Warren County. Samuel Richards, in whose memory the library in Warrensburg is dedicated, was its first commander. Company H of the Fifth Volunteers Cavalry was recruited from Crown Point. The company was led by Colonel John Hammond, whose monument to the horse that carried him through 34 battles still stands in the village park.
On Decoration Day, if on no other day, the town was united. Townspeople were united by shared emotions: “broken hearts, bereaved affection and agony of soul,” according to Major John L. Cunningham of the Adirondack Regiment. For the dead whom the towns honored on that day were not the abstract soldiers of statues. They were kinsmen, neighbors, and comrades. “These young men were known to all of us – they came from our own homes,” wrote E. Eugene Barker, the son of Captain E. J. Barker of Crown Point. But the town was also united by pride. “People were proud of the sacrifices their town had made for the sake of the nation,” a man now in his eighties once remarked. As a boy, his pride in his hometown was founded in the fact that it had mustered more troops in defense of the Union than any other town in the county.
Memorial Day, which links us to our nation’s past and the past of our towns, is an appropriate occasion to salute not only the virtues of the veterans but that seedbed of virtue, the small town. “True courage is mostly a fine quality of mind,” Major Cunningham wrote in his diary only hours after the Battle of Drury’s Bluff, in which 173 men from the Adirondack Regiment were killed, wounded or captured. That quality of mind was somehow cultivated in the offices, shops and schools of Adirondack towns. The men who distinguished themselves on the battlefield had already given proof of their merit in their friendships, their honesty, and even in the numbers of rods of stone wall which they had built. Our towns still produce “fine qualities of mind,” and we still take pride in the sacrifices our towns have made on behalf of the nation. It is therefore only right that Memorial Day is not only a national holiday but still very much a local holiday – our own community day.