Memorial Day weekend, an annual milestone of sorts—the unofficial beginning of the summer season; it’s a day associated with that first trip to the beach, a barbecue with friends and family, and, or yeah, that parade business. Loved by children, tolerated by adults (“Mom, Dad, can we go see the parade? Well…I guess so, if you really want to…”) there’s always that parade and the traffic jam afterwards. Sadly this is the way that much of America looks at Memorial Day. Now this year, there will be no family get-togethers, no big barbecues, and no parade and that, in my opinion, is sadder still. Like so many other holidays, this one’s real meaning has been largely forgotten. I’ve always placed part of the blame for the gentrification of many of our nation’s special days upon the National Holiday Act of 1971; known by most as the Monday Holiday law. By shuffling these special days around to make them into three-day weekends, we’ve marginalized their meaning. These days were specifically set for special reasons. These special days had, and should still have, great meaning and significance to the country. Let’s take a Swamptown gander at Memorial Day and try to reconnect with its past.
Memorial Day began in May of 1868, by the official proclamation of Gen. John Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic; the blue half of the Great War between the blues and the grays, our nation’s Civil War. It was, at that time, called Decoration Day and its stated purposed was to honor, celebrate, and decorate the graves of the fallen heroes of the Civil War. May 30 was specifically chosen because it was a day where there were generally many flowers available for the decoration of veteran’s gravestones. This was, in part, a very solemn holiday as, at that time, the war’s effects were still painfully felt across the nations, both north and south had lost so many of their young men. No family in America had escaped this extraordinary conflict unscathed, with 620,000 deaths attributed to this war, more than all of America’s other wars, from King Phillip’s War to Iraq, combined, all were touched deeply by this conflict.
This holiday’s connection to the Civil War was so great in fact, that it was not until after the government proclaimed it a day of remembrance for all US war dead and its name was changed to Memorial Day rather than Decoration Day that the southern states would even officially recognize it. This happened just after World War II.
So let’s look at some images and places locally associated with Decoration/Memorial Day here in our fair town starting with the present day Updike Park. It was once known as Veterans Park, and included the still extant World War I Veterans Monument and a wooden memorial known as the “Roll of Honor,” a sign that listed the town’s World War II veterans. Perhaps the most imposing of these Memorial Day parade stopping points is the Grand Army of the Republic monument in Elmgrove Cemetery. The Grand Army of the Republic, known most often as the GAR, was an organization akin to today’s American Legion; it was a fraternal organization specially set up for Civil War veterans. The monument, intended to honor the memory of the state of RI’s grand commander George T. Cranston, was constructed in Westerly, RI, in 1898, of light gray Westerly granite and was dedicated in a grand ceremony on Memorial Day of that same year. It stands over 25 feet tall and is composed of a base and 26 separate blocks of granite each engraved with the name of one of the G.A.R. posts in the state, including of course North Kingstown’s C.C. Baker post. The highly polished black granite globe at the summit of the monument is said to weigh almost half a ton. It’s fairly obvious why this monument holds a special place in my heart; George T. Cranston, the man I am named after was not only the state commander, he was also the state senator most responsible for the creation of Rhode Island’s Veteran Home, originally located here in town and then later moved to its present day location in Bristol. As a young boy, I often “rode shotgun” in the hearse for the family funeral home just to keep my dad company. Invariably I would eventually wander off from the numerous funerals I attended and my father always knew where to find me, right in front of this monument staring at my name carved in the fine Westerly granite.
The local C.C Baker chapter of the G.A.R. is also responsible for the wonderful Civil War statue in front of the town hall. This statue of an “every man” Civil War soldier was installed in 1912 and was actually the last official act of the chapter, which by then had dwindled down to just a few elderly members looking for an appropriate and meaningful way to utilize the contents of chapter’s treasury. A committee consisting of William G. Saunders, William Weinreich, and Reuben Secor purchased the statue from the JW Fiske Co., the most prominent manufacturer of decorative statuary at that time frame. It was actually originally installed across the street from the Town Hall adjacent to the train station that was located there and it, at the time it was installed, included a water feature, decorative troughs on either side for birds and even an occasional horse to drink from. When the station building was demolished in the late 1930s the statue was relocated to the front yard of the Town Hall where it stands today. North Kingstown’s statue, one of hundreds forged by the Fiske Company in the period, is in exceptionally good shape, and the 110-year-old statue has been visited many times by representatives from other communities in the US with Fiske statues of their own they are planning to restore. Indeed, North Kingstown’s Civil War soldier can also be found on the Smithsonian Institution’s website online listing of outdoor decorative art as the finest example of this type.
So now that you know a little bit more about the real story behind Memorial Day, I hope you will contemplate all the implications of what these fine men and women did for us across the centuries as you contemplate a summer that begins quite a bit differently on the 25th. Of course there won’t be nearly as many traffic jams….