Categories: Civil War, Emergence of Modern America, Everyday Life, War and Defense, World War I

Memorial Day 1920 Brings a Changing of the Guard

School children placing flowers on the graves of World War I servicemen
School children placing flowers on the graves of World War I servicemen, ca. 1920, Zion Hill Cemetery, Hartford. Photograph by William G. Dudley – Connecticut State Library, State Archives, War Records Department, Record Group 012

In 1920, veterans groups played an active role in orchestrating Memorial Day observances in towns across Connecticut. As had been the case for decades, remaining members of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization composed of Civil War veterans, took traditional place of pride alongside the Sons of Veterans, assemblies of men descended from individuals who had fought for the Union cause. After all, Memorial Day had been instituted on a national level by the GAR on May 30, 1868, at Arlington Cemetery. Known then as Decoration Day, it adopted earlier local customs, practiced in both the North and South, of remembering the Civil War dead by adorning their graves with wreaths, flags, and flowers.

So, as they had done for years, groups dedicated to sustaining public remembrance of the Civil War organized and marched in parades, gave speeches, attended religious services, and gathered school children to help mark the graves of fallen soldiers. But, this year, they were not alone. In many towns, a new group, the American Legion, joined in the making of plans.

Memories of a World War Loom Large

Chartered by the US Congress in September 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization, the American Legion consisted of those who had served in the Great War, which had only recently ended with the June 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Posts soon formed in Connecticut. As Memorial Day 1920 approached the Legion made plans to remember casualties of the war, including those buried overseas. For some towns, official commemoration of the recent conflict represented a new undertaking. Two days before the traditional May 30th observances (it was not until 1971 that federal law changed observance of the holiday to the last Monday in May no matter its date), the Hartford Courant reported:

As the day will be celebrated in Windsor in a manner never attempted before, and as it is the first Memorial Day in which members of the World War have taken part and assisted in decorating the graves of their own comrades, the legion hopes that every ex-serviceman will turn out.

In some locales, with the number of Civil War vets dwindling, the American Legion assumed primary organizational duties alongside other civic groups. “In the past six years the ranks of Grand Army posts have thinned so that barely a nucleus remains,” reported the Courant of Hartford’s Memorial Day parade and observances. Veterans of the Spanish-American War (1898) numbered fewer as well. New to the ranks were Connecticut’s veterans of the World War, many who paraded for the first time in 1920.

Enjoyed reading this? Share it with friends »