Memorial Day after the Civil War |

Memorial Day after the Civil War

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly

The Memorial Day celebrations of 19th-century Aspen were outdone only by the Fourth of July. “Decoration Day,” created by the fraternal group the Grand Army of The Republic in 1868, was celebrated in cities where the Grand Army of the Republic recruited significant membership. An active GAR advertised its headquarters on Hyman Avenue when Aspen was founded, a decade later.

National GAR membership floundered immediately after the Civil War, when the GAR’s primary function was to ensure that Reconstruction proceeded. But after priorities shifted to lobbying for veterans’ benefits, membership grew to large numbers by the 1880s. Promoting Memorial Day celebrations furthered the GAR cause, by providing an annual opportunity for veterans to gather and to reminisce.

Numerous Union and Confederate veterans called Aspen home, especially in the 1880s when many more men than women resided there. After the war, veterans returned home to an economy and changed circumstances that encouraged them to move west. Soldiers who had survived years of gruesome war, especially the many who enlisted as teenagers, were not deterred from tackling the hardships of mining camps. Teens who had enlisted during the war reached their thirties when Aspen’s boom years began. The Civil War conflagration, the seminal event of their lives, was balanced by the optimism of a thriving mining town.

Decoration Day in the 1880s featured traditional activities: parades, marches, and speeches and prayers at either the Wheeler or the Rink opera houses. Businesses closed for the day. The crowd estimate for 1886 exceeded 3,000 – an impressive turnout given that Aspen’s population topped out at 5,000.

Parades featured a grand marshal, usually the current commander of the GAR. Veterans marched in uniform. School children and other citizens preferred parading to lining the streets as spectators. Organizations including the Patriotic Sons of America, Ladies Relief Corps, musical bands, labor unions and fire department hose companies also participated. Marchers could be political, as was evidenced by the annual participation of the Anti-Tobacco Battalion.

After the parade, groups strolled or rode wagons to the cemetery. There they decorated graves and listened to speeches at a memorial constructed in 1884 by the GAR. Known as “the cenotaph,” that 10-foot-tall wooden monument honored Civil War deaths as well as fatalities from previous American wars. Soldiers’ graves were decorated with flags, flowers and evergreen branches, with special attention to those who had succumbed in the previous year.

Over time, the GAR tempered its loathing for soldiers of the Confederacy. Using politically correct language, they came to describe Decoration Day as, “…sacred to the memory of the dead heroes of the late unpleasantness.” Even “graves of those who died in mistaken service of a wrong cause” were decorated with respect.

The day ended at one of Aspen’s opera houses, decorated with flags and bunting, for more speeches and music. A speech excerpt by Sons of Veterans member Edward Taylor could just as easily be delivered today as it was in 1889. “This is Memorial Day, the solemn and instructive festival of our country’s dead. Our hearts are filled with tender memories of departed heroes. It is a holy day, gladly consecrated to the grateful and sacred duty we owe to our fathers, those who died for us.”


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