Saturday, May 29, 2010

Decoration Day and Bovina's Civil War Dead

Memorial Day started after the Civil War as 'Decoration Day.' First observed nationwide in 1868, it was intended to honor the dead from the recently concluded conflict. The Civil War Veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, spurred on the celebration, choosing May 30 as the date each year.

In Bovina, as in other towns throughout the country, much of the work of placing flags and flowers on the graves of fallen comrades fell on Bovina's Civil War veterans - it's 'Old Soldiers.' Each year, these survivors of the conflict, likely with help from family and friends, would visit cemeteries to place the flags and flowers.

Bovina lost eleven young men in the actual war: Sinclair Burns, Andrew G. Chisholm, Solomon Coulter, Robert Dysert, James C. Elliott, Thomas Elliott, William T. Gillie, John Murray, Jr., James T. Oliver, William Storie, and William H. Stott. Only three of these died in battle: brothers James and Thomas Elliott and William Stott. The Elliott brothers both died in November 1864. Thomas was wounded October 19 at Cedar Creek, Virginia and died in a Baltimore hospital on November 6. His brother James died at the end of November. Six other Bovina soldiers died of Typhoid Fever and two others died of unspecified diseases. This ratio of battle deaths to death by disease is very typical of the Civil War. Some of the fallen soldiers are buried in Bovina, while others have memorial stones, with their actual graves in the south - three are in Beaufort, South Carolina.

As the years passed, there were fewer and fewer Old Soldiers around to carry out their acts of remembrance. In 1916, it was reported that though Bovina still had five Civil War veterans, only two of them were healthy enough to participate in placing the flags and flowers.

Decoration Day became a day to not just honor the dead from combat but to remember family and friends. My dad remembered his mother, Anna Bell LaFever, making sure the graves of all of her loved ones who had passed on had flowers that weekend. And as a child, I remember the trips we made over to the Beaverkill to put flowers on the graves of my mom's family. By then, Decoration Day had become Memorial Day. Though the latter term was in use later in the 19th century, it didn't become common until after World War II. In 1967, Congress passed a law making Memorial Day the official name of the holiday.

Today, those soldiers lost in the Civil War and all veterans of combat are remembered in Bovina cemeteries each year with the placing of flags on the graves by the American Legion. Bovina has around 120 veterans in its various cemeteries, from the American Revolution, War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, the two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam.

So enjoy the weekend - but don't forget why we have this holiday in the first place.

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