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A Triumphant Commemoration

John Conway
Posted 5/24/24

By most accounts, Memorial Day as it is presently celebrated has its roots in the tradition begun on May 30, 1868 of decorating with freshly bloomed flowers the graves of those soldiers who gave …

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A Triumphant Commemoration


By most accounts, Memorial Day as it is presently celebrated has its roots in the tradition begun on May 30, 1868 of decorating with freshly bloomed flowers the graves of those soldiers who gave their lives in the War Between the States. Ceremonies were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states that year – all in the north—and that number nearly doubled the next year. In 1871, the state of Michigan adopted Decoration Day, as it had become known, as an official holiday, and by 1890 every northern state had followed suit.

Over the years, the name of the holiday gradually morphed into Memorial Day, and that was officially adopted by Congress in 1967. By that time, the intent of the commemoration had also changed, from a day in which to honor those who had fallen in the Civil War to one in which those who died in all of America’s wars are remembered.

There is no official account of when local traditions of commemorating the holiday began, but by 1963, when the Sullivan County Historical Society published “Brass Buttons and Leather Boots: Sullivan County and the Civil War” such observances had become commonplace. 

The book offers a fairly broad view of Sullivan County’s participation in the war, including the men who mustered in, the tanneries that supplied the leather for the boots worn by Union soldiers, and the activities of those who kept the home fires burning.

Sullivan County men had fought gallantly in defense of the Union, serving in dozens of different regiments, ranging from the 28th, for which Monticello’s Major John Waller raised Company H in the early months of the war, to the vaunted 56th, of which ten full companies hailed from the county, to the 143rd, raised almost entirely from Sullivan. Other men from Sullivan County fought with the 144th, the 15th Engineers, the 127th, the 30th, the 1st Engineers, the 129th, the 93rd, the 18th, and the 33rd.

Company G of the 2nd Regiment Mounted Rifles included men from the towns of Bethel, Callicoon, Liberty and Thompson. The town of Rockland sent men off to fight with the 8th Independent Battery Artillery. Men from Neversink fought with the 25th Regiment Cavalry and with the 1st Mounted Rifles, which also included men from Fallsburgh and Monticello. African Americans from the county fought with the 20th, the 26th and the 37th U.S. Colored Troops. Certainly there were other units that included men from this area.

 Casualties were many. The 28th lost more than 60 men, including heavy losses during General Pope’s campaign in Virginia in August and September in 1863. The 56th suffered at least 64 dead at places like Fair Oaks, Virginia, and Honeyhill and Deveaux Neck, South Carolina. The 143rd fought at Chattanooga, Kennesaw Mountain, and in Sherman’s March to the Sea, losing more than 40 men. 

Very few of those men of Sullivan who lost their lives in the bloody conflict were brought home for burial. Some doubtlessly fared no better than an unmarked grave in a faraway place. Nonetheless, there are Civil War dead buried in Sullivan County, including two Confederate soldiers, victims of the Great Shohola Train Wreck of July 15, 1864, which killed at least 51 of the more than 800 Confederate prisoners of war and 17 of the 128 Union guards aboard an Elmira bound train.  

Confederate soldiers John and Michael Johnson of North Carolina, who were critically injured in the wreck and had been transported across the Barryville-Shohola suspension bridge to the New York side for treatment at the home of the Hickok family, died after a few days and were buried in the Congregational Church cemetery in Barryville.

Sullivan County men and women died in many different wars in many different times. But if the definition of a hero is, as the writer Joseph Campbell wrote, someone who has given one’s life to something bigger than oneself, then they are all heroes, as are all of those men and women who are memorialized on the most American of holidays, men and women who gave what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” for the greatest cause of all, that their fellow Americans could live in freedom.

Speaking about heroes at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in 1982, President Ronald Reagan said:

“Our first obligation to them and ourselves is plain enough: The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper. Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost; it imposes a burden.

“As we honor their memory today, let us pledge that their lives, their sacrifices, their valor shall be justified and remembered for as long as God gives life to this nation.”

This weekend, while Memorial Day is celebrated with barbeques and picnics, we would do well to remember what President Benjamin Harrison called “the joyous, thankful, triumphant commemoration of what these men and women did.”

And in doing so, let us never allow what Lincoln called “the silent artillery of time’’ to destroy our understanding, or our remembrance, of the solemn origins of this day.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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