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Memorial Day

 It was Decoration Day, not Memorial Day,
when Hamilton held first observance in 1868

Annual day of mourning military dead continues to be center of controversy

Contributed by Jim Blount

A late May date that has been a tradition for 142 years -- although solemn in nature -- continues to be controversial. In 2010, Memorial Day is Monday, May 31, and will be observed with the usual parades and ceremonies in Butler County.

Its official start was May 30, 1868, declared by Major-Gen. John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans group. The GAR had been formed in Springfield, Ill., in April 1866, a year after the end of the four-year war that divided the nation.

It was designated a day of mourning, not a holiday. It was intended to be a time reserved to remember and honor the 600,000 Americans, North and South, who sacrificed their lives in the 1861-1865 conflict. 
That distinction is part of the debate that surrounds the observance today. Critics believe labeling it a holiday has blurred, if not obliterated its original meaning.

Another point of contention is the name. In 1868, and for decades after, it was Decoration Day -- a day to decorate the graves of the fallen.

A third objection began in 1971. That’s when Congress made it part of a three-day weekend with the National Holiday Act of 1971 As a veterans’ group noted in 2002, "changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."

Until the 1971 legislation, Decoration Day, or Memorial Day, was observed annually on May 30, regardless of the day of the week.

Not all states welcomed the introduction of Decoration Day in 1868, and refused to recognized it for decades. Those were states that had composed the Confederate States of American (CSA) during the Civil War. Their defiance has continued as they observe Confederate Memorial Day, but not on May 30. Southern war dead are honored Jan. 19 in Texas; April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee.
Hamilton’s first Decoration Day was May 30, 1868, as declared by the national Civil War veterans organization, the GAR.

The first Hamilton GAR group, organized Jan. 25, 1867, was the Samuel R. Johns Post, named in honor of the first private from Butler County to die in battle. Pvt. Johns of the Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment was shot July 6, 1861, at Middleford Bridge, W. Va. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

Founding officers included Alexander W. Scott, commander; the Rev. J. B. McDill, vice commander; James M. Ayers, adjutant; J. S. McNeeley, surgeon; Charles E. Giffen, quartermaster; R. Hannaford, junior vice commander; John Decker, officer of the day; and Jacob Day, officer of the guard.

Members of the 130-member Johns post marched to Greenwood Cemetery in May 1868. There they placed flowers on soldiers' graves and conducted a memorial program, featuring a speech by Captain David W. McClung of Hamilton.

For reasons unknown, the local GAR post disbanded in 1870. Some members formed a new group -- the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Association -- Aug. 16, 1878, under the direction of Captain F. B. Landis. The association -- whose first commander was Granville Moody Flenner -- had 192 members before disbanding Aug. 11, 1881.

A new local GAR post organized before the association ceased operation. Wetzel-Compton Post -- which expanded to more than 500 members -- formed in Hamilton July 14, 1881, with 30 charter members. Its first commander was D. H. Hensley, who had been a member of the 73rd Indiana Infantry Regiment during the Civil War.
The new GAR group was named in honor of two Hamilton men who died carrying the flag of the 69th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Jacob Wetzel fell during the charge on Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga in 1863. John A. Compton was killed during the Battle of Resaca, Ga., in 1864.

Jacob A. (Uncle Jake) Inman of Somerville was the last surviving member of Wetzel-Compton Post. He was 99 years old when he died Sept. 15, 1941. The post flag flew for the last time at his funeral in Somerville. Butler County's last Civil War veteran was DeWitt Clinton Orr, who was 94 when he died in Middletown Nov. 14, 1943. He is buried in Woodside Cemetery in Middletown.

James W. Houston, a member of Wetzel-Compton Post, was the last Civil War veteran to participate in a Hamilton Memorial Day parade. He was honorary grand marshal of the 1936 event. Houston, regarded as Hamilton's last Civil War veteran, died Aug. 1, 1936, at the age of 89. Because he had been a member of the 11th Ohio Cavalry, his funeral included a horseback escort. He is buried in Oxford Cemetery.

Several veterans became popular features of the annual Hamilton parade.

Jacob Jackson served as a drummer in the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment -- called "the Butler Boys" because most its more than 900 men resided in or had been born in Butler County.

The drummer’s image is duty in relative safety behind the lines. In fact, Civil War drummers served at or close to the front, exposed to shot and shell, and capture in enemy breakthroughs. They also were prime targets for snipers. With buglers and fifers, the drummers sounded orders and commands for companies (about 100 men) in camp, on the march and during combat. They were vital to army communications.

Jackson’s last parade appearance as a drummer was May 30, 1933. He died Sept. 20, 1934, four days after his 93rd birthday anniversary.

As an 18-year-old, William J. Morand had enlisted in the Army in 1880, four years after George Armstrong Custer's debacle on the Little Big Horn in Montana Territory. His five-year service took him to the U. S. western territories.

The veteran of one of the nation's last campaigns against the Indians was easily recognized in local parades for about 50 years. He participated in full dress uniform on horseback. He died Jan. 31,1945.

The initial reverence associated with Decoration Day is understandable when it is realized that the Civil War -- unlike recent wars -- touched the lives of most of Butler County’s 35,000-plus residents in the 1861-1865 period. There is no official record of deaths and wounded. It is likely that more than 500 Butler County died during the war and several deaths after 1865 were attributed to disease or wounds suffered during the war.

About 4,444 Butler County men served in the Union cause, according to James E. Campbell, a local Civil War veteran who became governor of Ohio. He estimated there were 6,544 men of military age among the county's 35,840 residents, male and female, at the start of the war. That meant two out of every three men in the county served at one time or another. |

Campbell emphasized that the Butler Countians were volunteers, not draftees. When the first draft was held Oct. 1, 1862, he said the county "had sent to the field . . . 337 men more than her full quota up to that time. She was, therefore, one of the 13 counties [out of Ohio’s 88] in which no draft was ordered."
Unfortunately, Decoration Day has become more than a day to honor Civil War casualties. It also commemorates the sacrifices of Indian wars, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other U. S. military operations.