FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 22, 2012
Shelly Angers, N.H. Department of Cultural Resources
N.H. and the Civil War: How Memorial Day came to be
As part of New Hampshire’s “May is Preservation Month” observation, the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources is publishing a series of articles exploring the Granite State’s involvement in the Civil War.
This week, the focus is on how massive casualties during the Civil War changed the way we mourn the dead and led to the establishment of Memorial Day.
Approximately 33,000 New Hampshire soldiers – ten percent of the state’s 1860 population – served in the state’s cavalry, light battery, heavy artillery, eighteen infantry and two U.S. sharpshooter units. Of those, approximately 4,300 died on the battlefield or of injury or disease. Nearly 1,600 or so others were never accounted for.
At the time, both the North and South were accustomed to death being an intimate, family, at-home experience, with family plots and community cemeteries serving as final resting places. Loved ones dying far from home – with their bodies often buried in undocumented, mass graves – necessitated new ways of honoring the dead.
Women in the south began decorating the graves of soldiers with flowers before the war was over; later, towns in the north began doing so with formal, organized occasions. In 1868, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic John A. Logan designated May 30 a day for “decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” In 1881, New Hampshire Governor Natt Head issued a proclamation formally establishing Decoration Day as a holiday in our state.
Decoration Day evolved into what today we call Memorial Day, which honors all Americans who gave their lives in the armed services, in all wars. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared Memorial Day a federal holiday to be observed on the last Monday in May; New Hampshire continued to officially observe the holiday on May 30 until 1993, when Governor Stephen Merrill signed legislation joining the federal observance.
To see images and learn more about mourning and Decoration Day in New Hampshire, visit www.nh.gov/nhdhr and click on the “May is Preservation Month” link in the “Quick Links” box on the right. Databases related to New Hampshire regiments during the Civil War, including calendars listing regiment activity, are available at http://www.nh.gov/nhculture/nh_civilwar.htm.
New Hampshire's Division of Historical Resources, the “State Historic Preservation Office,” was established in 1974. The historical, archeological, architectural, engineering and cultural resources of New Hampshire are among the most important environmental assets of the state. Historic preservation promotes the use, understanding and conservation of such resources for the education, inspiration, pleasure and enrichment of New Hampshire’s citizens. For more information, visit us online at www.nh.gov/nhdhr or by calling (603) 271-3483.
New Hampshire’s Department of Cultural Resources includes the State Council on the Arts, the Film and Television Office, the Division of Historical Resources, the State Library and the Commission on Native American Affairs. The Department strives to nurture the cultural well-being of our state. From the covered bridges and traditional music of our past to the avant-garde performances and technological resources of today and tomorrow, New Hampshire’s culture is as varied as its geography and its people. This strong cultural base—which truly has something for everyone—attracts businesses looking for engaged workforces, provides outstanding educational opportunities and creates communities worth living in. Learn more at www.nh.gov/nhculture/.