America’s Civil War left nearly a million casualties and a national wound that would take generations to heal. Heal it did and the process began almost immediately. While a small hamlet in Greater Western New York was busy forgetting its recent past, another of our villages became the first to keep from forgetting. If we travel east of Town Line on Route 20, we pass through the heart of our region. Just past Geneva and before we reach Seneca Falls, we come to the not-so-small Village of Waterloo in Seneca County. Waterloo’s a big village, reaching into three towns – Waterloo, Seneca and Fayette.
When the Union veterans began returning to Waterloo, a forty-five year old druggist took note. He noted how the residents greeted all those who returned with honors and celebrations. What bothered him, though, were the ones that didn’t return. Who would honor their memories? Perhaps he was compelled by his own personal experience. He himself had only the memory of his three children, all who died in childhood.
Born in Glastonbury, Connecticut on May 13, 1821, Henry C. Welles (not to be confused with Henry Wells of Palmyra and Buffalo and co-founder of Wells-Fargo), came to Waterloo with his family sometime after 1825. A hard worker and proud of his community, he soon became a much respected druggist and elected official. When he saw how many soldiers didn’t return, he had an idea. In the summer of 1865, he attended a social gathering with some friends. It was there he first proposed his idea of placing flowers on the graves of the war dead, but nothing came of it.1
In early 1866, he told General John B. Murray of his idea. Murray, originally from Vermont, was a lawyer and teacher from Seneca Falls. He joined the 148th Regiment of New York State Volunteers in 1862 and commanded them as a captain. He held the rank of brigadier general when he was discharged in 1866. He had just moved to Waterloo to assume office as newly elected County Clerk of Seneca County when he met Welles. He very much liked the idea of a “Decoration Day,” (as Memorial Day was originally called).
Welles and Murray organized a committee of local citizens and, with Murray enlisting veterans’ support, held the nation’s first official Decoration Day on May 5, 1866. They adorned the Village of Waterloo with flags (all at half mast) draped with evergreens and mourning black. They then collected a group of citizens, community organizations and veterans and, as the band played marching music, paraded to each of the Villages three cemeteries, where they held a short ceremony amidst the decorated graves of soldiers who gave their most. This was repeated on the same day the following year, but moved permanently to May 30th in 1868 in harmony with the orders of Major General John A. Logan, who, as head of the Grand Army of the Republic, organized the first national Decoration Day and led services in Arlington Cemetery.
Just two months after experiencing the nationalization of his idea, Welles died. A year later, in 1869, Murray moved back to Seneca Falls. Between Welles’ early death and Murray’s natural speaking and leadership abilities, many assumed the idea for Decoration Day came from Murray. Indeed, given his skills as an orator and prominence as the co-organizer of the first Decoration Day, he quickly became a much sought-after speaker. Contemporary newspapers, however, did give Welles the credit he was due.2
It wasn’t until after World War I that Memorial Day was expanded to honor fallen soldiers of all American wars. The name Memorial Day wouldn’t officially displace Decoration Day until Congress passed legislation renaming the holiday in 1967.
At least 25 other communities, many from the south, claimed to have been the first to establish a Decoration Day, but Waterloo was the first to do so formally, as a community wide event and as a continuing annual memorial. To honor Waterloo, in 1966 as part of the Centennial Celebration of Memorial Day, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson officially declared Waterloo in Greater Western New York as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. In 1971, the “official” Memorial Day shifted from May 30th each year to the last Monday in May.
Memorial Day would be but the first of the three patriot traditions established in the United States following the Civil War. In keeping with its role as the heart and soul of America, Greater Western New York would also have a hand in the other two.
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1 “The History and Origin of Memorial Day in Waterloo, New York,” Waterloo New York website, http://www.waterloony.com/memday.html |
2 “Henry C. Welles, 1821-1868,” Ancestry.com, http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nyseneca/welles.htm |