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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Mourning and Memorial Day

“ . . . recommend to the whole population of the State that they lay aside their usual avocations, and come together to consecrate this day for ever [sic] to the cause of popular freedom, by eulogistic speech, martial airs, and solemn procession. Let us add our contributions to the offerings of our citizen soldiery. Let us tenderly and lovingly lay the flowers of early spring upon the graves of our sons, and place above their ashes the flag, which, living, they covered with imperishable luster. Let us recall the virtues and the deeds of those who sleep where they fell in the hour of battle . . .”
                                                                       --Governor Natt Head. 1881. State of New Hampshire Proclamation of Decoration Day.

The Civil War’s scale of participation and loss, the manner of death and disappearance, and the social context during which it all occurred influenced how mourning was perceived and carried out during and after the war years. How does an activity as personal as mourning the death of a loved one become, eventually, a national movement?

“The Soldier’s Memorial,” New York, NY. Lithograph created by
Currier & Ives, ca. 1863. From the collection of the Library of
accessed on May 9, 2012.
Participation and Loss
By any standards, the death toll in the Civil War was immense. It has been a long-held truth that approximately 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, about the number killed in the seven wars between the Revolutionary War to the Korean War combined. Recent research reveals a new estimate of Civil War dead – 750,000 – 20% higher than previously believed.

Of approximately 33,000 soldiers who joined New Hampshire units (about 10% of the State’s total population in 1860), approximately 4,300 died on the battlefield, shortly thereafter of mortal wounds, or of disease. About 13% of those who left their homes and families to join the Union cause were known to have lost their lives. The status of another 1,600 or so soldiers, 5%, were never accounted for or known by the military or their families.

Death and Disappearance
Intimate experience with death was not a concept foreign to 19th century Americans. Before the war, dying often occurred at home surrounded by loved ones. Family witnessed the dying one’s final moments and cared for their final needs before internment, infusing the death experience itself with religious and cultural meaning.

The scope and circumstance of death during the war drastically changed. Far from home and family many died unattended, contrary to the manner that meant so much to them. In addition, many died unidentified or were hastily buried in undocumented mass graves, leaving their fates and the nature of their final moments unknown.

The town of Milford sent 196 men to the war, 60 (31%) of whom died. Of the 60 who died, “forty of these were never brought home to be buried;” and “all supposed to be dead” of the five who were reported missing (Ramsdell 1901: 141-143). Milford also lost a young nurse, Carrie Cutter, who died at the age of twenty from disease contracted while caring for soldiers (Wright 1979: 15).
Canterbury Civil War Monument with GAR Marker
flag. Twenty-four (19%) of the 128 enlisted men
town of Canterbury “furnished” for the war
were killed, mortally wounded, or died of disease.

Grave of 1st Lieutenant Thomas T.
Moore with GAR marker and flag. Killed
August 29, 1862 at the Second Battle of
Bull Run, Manassas, Va.
Grave of Private Charles W. Morrill. Discharged
disabled November 26, 1864 in Natchez, Miss.
and died 12 days later on December 8 in Cairo,
Ill. Part of a family plot, Morrill’s gravestone

links his life and death to the war.

 Graves and GAR Grave Markers; Canterbury, NH. Protection of the physical features of New Hampshire’s cemeteries through care and maintenance best practices will help ensure a lasting memory of those who have died and the historical context in which their lives were commemorated and remembered over time.  From the collection of the NH Division of Historical Resources, Concord, NH.

Decoration Day
As logistics and circumstance made individual care of the dead more difficult, the Civil War spurred a number of national activities related to the collective care and memory of the country’s war dead that continue to this day. Although initially carried out differently through the North and the South, formally and informally, the war led to the establishment of a national cemetery system and a national day of remembrance. 

Women in the South began decorating the graves of soldiers with flowers before the war was over, and towns in the North began observing formal occasions for decorating the graves of war dead. Decoration Day – so named in reference to these early activities – eventually evolved into the holiday we know today as Memorial Day.

“New Hampshire Decoration Day Proclamation,” Concord, NH, 1881.
From the collection of the Library of Congress,
(NUMBER+@band(rbpe+09600200)), accessed on May 4, 2012.
Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) formally designated by General Order Number 11 a memorial day on May 30, 1868 dedicated “for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” The order spoke of “cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead,” preserving collectively their memory and “the cost of a free and undivided republic,” and encouraged the event’s annual observance (, accessed on May 7, 2012). The first national observance of the holiday was on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery. The GAR, a Civil War Union veterans’ organization established in 1866 had 94 posts in New Hampshire. GAR markers decorate graves throughout the state’s cemeteries.

In 1881, New Hampshire Governor Natt Head issued a proclamation that formally established the holiday in this state. While some states still follow other Memorial Day traditions, New Hampshire currently observes the holiday on the last Monday in May, following a change by federal law in 1971 that also broadened the honor of the holiday to all soldiers who died in American wars.

This portrait of Governor Natt Head hangs in the New
Hampshire State House. It is displayed there on the third floor.
The portrait was painted by U.D. Tenney in 1880.

Sources and Further Reading

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 2008.

Lyford, James Otis. History of the Town of Canterbury New Hampshire 1797-1912. Concord, NH: Rumford Press, 1912. Reprint Canterbury, NH: Canterbury Historical Society, 1973., accessed on May 4, 2012.

Ramsdell, George A. The History of Milford. Concord, NH: Rumford Press, 1901.

Schlereth, Thomas J. Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.

Stevenson, Louise L. The Victorian Homefront: American Thought and Culture 1860-1880. New York, NY: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Wright, Winifred A. The Granite Town: Milford, NH 1901-1978. Canaan, NH: Town of Milford, 1979.

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