COLUMN: The Musings of A Simple Country Man

Hobie Morris

Memorial Day: A Historical Postscript

For a moment let’s turn back the hands of time. We’ll honor all of the Town of Brookfield’s Civil War veterans. Pastor Mark has invited each of them to our Sunday morning service at the historic Baptist Church.

We anxiously anticipate their arrival. We sit in our pews, carefully watching the doors. Slowly they begin coming in.

Frail old men, unsteady on their feet, many using canes, others assisted by family and friends. They remove their old blue campaign hats. Their hair is now thin and white. Some wearing beards. They slowly look around the sanctuary nodding greetings to others. Their eyesight has dimmed over the years. Old threadbare blue uniforms hang limply on thin bony frames. They keep coming in.

Pastor Mark finds himself on the horns of a logistical dilemma. Where to put them all plus his normally large congregation. The church has never been this full!

Nearly 350 Civil war veterans have somehow shoehorned themselves into the packed sanctuary.

Many of the younger regular attendees have gladly given up their seats and stand or sit outside on the front lawn and walkway. Many congregants are also in back by the basketball hoop and parking lot. Even the Fellowship Hall is full.

Pastor Mark turns up the PA system volume as high as it will go. His stirring, patriotic sermon is clearly heard and enjoyed by everybody, both in and outside of the church.

Unquestionably this is one of the greatest Memorial Day/Sunday celebrations in this community’s history.

* * *

Brookfield’s Civil War soldiers, of course, have long been gone. Forever resting peacefully in local cemeteries. The last local veteran dying in 1933 at age 87. (Interestingly, a few Federal Civil War benefits are still being paid by the U.S. Government years after the end of the war in 1865. No doubt some states still pay out similar Civil War Benefits.)

* * *

On Memorial Day Sunday, Pastor Mark once again honored the military veterans who attend First Baptist Church. Continuing a community tradition that began soon after the Civil War. On May 5, 1868 Decoration Day was declared by the head of a Civil War veterans’ organization. In 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress declared Waterloo the official birthplace of Decoration Day. A ceremony once held there on May 5, 1866. In 1971 Memorial Day became an official national holiday. In 1873 New York State became the first state to declare Decoration Day a legal state holiday. Since then veterans have been recognized and properly honored for now parts of three centuries.

Like today’s veteran organizations like the VFW and American Legion, Civil War veterans had their own organization called the “Grand Army of the Republic” (GAR founded in 1866).

Brookfield’s very active “Searle Post 448” was one of 500 similar posts throughout this state, and countless thousands in the nation. Brookfield also had its own GAR Hall located where today’s Fire House now stands.

Veterans and their families became quite close. Common war, and now life-and-death experiences, often form such closeness.

What were Decoration Days like in those post Civil War years? Some glimpses follow.

These slowly aging veterans were especially noticeable on Memorial Day (or Decoration Day, as it was originally called). A celebration rivaled only by July 4 in patriotic enthusiasm. Both great holidays were enthusiastically celebrated in Brookfield. A huge throng of area people “flocked” into this village for the daylong celebration.

The highlight for the vets was the parade from the GAR Hall down to the flag and flower decorated cemetery. (The young children had gone through the cemetery putting colorful spring flowers and flags on the many tombstones of dead veterans.) The honored guests were of course the remaining Civil War “little boys in blue.”

After the cemetery ceremony, many of the celebrants returned to the GAR Hall where sumptuous refreshments had been prepared for them. In the afternoon came more activities including the musical numbers and patriotic speeches – the keynote one usually given by a local dignitary – who was also usually a Civil War veteran.

In those early years local Civil War veterans were young and still in the prime of life. Their uniforms still fit – although sometimes a little more snugly. In front of the GAR on Decoration/Memorial Day the men formed loose ranks for the march to the cemetery. This leisurely stroll was nothing after years of long, hard marches during the war.

The years rolled by. One by one their ranks thinned. The survivors were less physically active now. Their annual march to the cemetery became more of an endurance test than a pleasurable spring jaunt. By 1909, 55 of their friends and comrades were already buried in the local cemetery.

On Memorial Day, 1912, the Brookfield Courier reflected that “…Fewer and fewer each year fill the ranks when the call to line up is given, and the faltering steps and whitened locks of the remnant tell us that all too soon the Grand Army of the Republic will be but a memory, but as long as there is one of the boys in blue to carry the flag, the fire of patriotism will burn as bright in his heart as it did fifty years ago.”

Two years later (1914) at eh same great holiday the Courier recalled that …We can remember the first Memorial Day in Brookfield many years ago when a long line of Grand Army men – middle aged men – marched to the cemetery where there were many less veterans’ graves than now. Out of respect to the dead and the few living of the old ‘boys in blue,’ let there be an impressive observance of the day….

A sad reminder of changing times appeared in a 1914 Courier ad: For Sale – Grand Army Hall located on Main St., Brookfield. Suitable for town hall, moving pictures or theatrical purposes. Electric lights, well equipped kitchen, good stage…

There were also special events associated with the war. “Appomattox Day, for instance, was celebrated on April 10, 1909. Apparently it was a “rousing success,” highlighted by patriotic songs, shared experiences, a campfire, and an address by Col. Joseph Kemple of Utica.

The Courier reported on the festivities.

…The Grand Army is now rapidly passing away and there will be but a few more opportunities to meet and mingle with the gray and grizzled ‘Old Boys’ who saved to us the best and greatest government on earth. (The next day Col. Kemple gave another patriotic address in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church.)

Veterans from the Spanish American War and WW I were now joining the few remaining Civil War veterans on these patriotic occasions. By the 1920’s those remaining “boys in blue” had to ride to the cemetery in open automobiles. Their marching days were over.

The present year (2017) will have special meaning to this community and church.

In July 2013, America commemorated the 150 th anniversary of the epic three-day Battle of Gettysburg that claimed over 51,000 casualties. A battle in which many Brookfielders fought. An Assistant Surgeon John T Stillman found himself a Confederate prisoner during the battle, where he continued his work in the “cause of humanity.” How he got back to the Union line remained a long mystery. In 1893 he received from New York state a “Gettysburg Medal” molded from a captured brass Confederate cannon. In 1901 his Civil War pension was increased from $8 to $12 a month.

In 1913 there was the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the most famous reunion of the Union and Confederates who fought there. (A final reunion was held in 1938. Of the men, only 1,836 made it to Gettysburg. Their average age was 94.)

Several veterans from Brookfield took the free train trip to the small Pennsylvania town, including well-known local businessman Thomas E Craine. Despite being an invalid for the previous 25 years he was determined to go. He passed away a little over a year later.

This year will celebrate a significant milestone in First Baptist Church’s long and influential history. It will be the 103rd anniversary of our finally “seeing the light.” This fascinating story in part follows.

In 1914 a segment of the Memorial Day festivities was again held in the Baptist Church. GAR members able to do so walked up to the church from their West Main Street hall. The Rev. F.P. Linderman of North Brookfield gave a speech telling stories about his three years in the service.

As the Courier reported, it was an especially memorable evening since electric lights had been recently installed in the church, adding their ‘mellow light onto the large crowd and festivities.’ The symbolic changing of the guard. The dimming twilight of those who went off to war in 1861 and the brightness of electric lights of a far different 20th century America that was just the beginning.

A century more of honoring veterans of far too many conflicts followed. Will we ever beat our swords into plowshares and will lions ever lie and live peacefully with lambs? We can dream of that time while still honoring our living veterans and those 1.1 million American service people who have died in all our wars.

Hobie Morris is a Brookfield resident and simple country man.

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