Saturday, January 11, 2014

Antietam 1879 Decoration Day: 'Very little drunkeness'

Dedication Day observance  at Antietam National Cemetery in Sharpsburg, Md., on Sept. 17, 1880.  
This image was by Elias M. Recher.  (Author's collection)
On May 30, 1879,  a huge crowd gathered for a Decoration Day observance at Antietam National Cemetery. Now known as Memorial Day, Decoration Day in the North was a very big deal in the decades just after the Civil War. (Because of lingering animosity toward the North, Southern states refused to celebrate May 30 until after World War I.) With memories of the conflict still very fresh, citizens in towns and cities gathered in cemeteries to place flowers and mementos at the final resting places of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. In Hartford, newspapers extensively covered Decoration Day, publishing long lists of the graves of soldiers to be decorated and speeches of dignitaries who attended the events. (Update: I should have checked with Antietam photo expert Stephen Recker before posting the photograph. The Recher image, Recker (no relation) points out, was probably taken on Dedication Day at the national cemetery on Sept. 17, 1880.)

A captain in the 6th Wisconsin, Edward Bragg was wounded
in the left arm at Antietam. His 1879 Decoration Day speech at
Antietam National Cemetery was called a "masterly production."
"At an early hour the crowd came pouring into town," the Sharpsburg (Md.) Enterprise reported a week after its 1879 Decoration Day observance, "and at the appointed time for the ceremonies the town was literally packed." The newspaper estimated that between 4,000 to 5,000 people, roughly four times the population of the village, attended the event. At noon, a procession of people that included General Edward S. Bragg, a veteran of the battle, formed in Sharpsburg's square and walked the short distance up a hill to the national cemetery, which had been officially dedicated 12 years earlier. The procession wound its way through the 11-acre grounds before it halted at the rostrum that was decorated with evergreens and an American flag. A lieutenant colonel in the 6th Wisconsin who was wounded in the left arm at Antietam, Bragg gave a speech that the Sharpsburg newspaper called a "masterly production and a beautiful tribute to the memory of the fallen heroes of the battle of Antietam. ... he alluded to the brave ones of his own regiment who were now quietly sleeping the sleep that knows no earthly waking in this consecrated spot." While "appropriate music" was played by the Myersville (Md.) Band and Colonel Mobley's Hagerstown Band, flowers were strewn on the graves of Civil War dead. Later, local military units fired salutes in sections of the cemetery and artillery from the cemetery circle, near the massive Private Soldier monument.

"Everything passed off pleasantly," the Enterprise reported, "nothing occurring to mar the pleasure of the day. The best of order prevailed, and there was very little drunkenness. The artillery and infantry left in the afternoon for Martinsburg  (W.Va.), and by nightfall Sharpsburg had settled back into the even tenor of her ways, and quiet reigned supreme."

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