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.

Gov. Natt Head (1881) issued the proclamation formally establishing Decoration Day as a holiday in New Hampshire. The portrait of Gov. Head can be seen on the third floor of the N.H. State House.

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 learn more about Decoration Day in New Hampshire, visit www.nh.gov/nhdhr and click on the “May is Preservation Month.”

Images made available by the N.H. Division of Historical Resources.

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