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Memorial Day traces its roots to the years following the Civil War. Nationwide, it was a time that ceremonies were springing up in both the North and the South to pay tribute to those who had lost their lives in that terrible conflict.
The placement of flowers on the graves - first called "Decoration Day" - was given some permanence in 1868 when General John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veteran's organization, issued his General Order No. 11. It called for May 30 to be set aside "for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating, the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land."
The desire to pay tribute to the fallen sons from Elgin had to be overwhelming. The city at that time was only a small rural village with fewer than 3,000 people, yet it suffered a loss of more than 60. Proportionately, that would equal the loss of more than 2,000 men with today's population.
Elgin-area men who lost their lives in the war did so at locations across the South. These included bloody battles at Shiloh and Fort Donelson in Tennessee. Still others succumbed by drowning or while being held as a prisoner of war.
Elgin's first Decoration Day began in the city's downtown, followed by the placing of floral tributes and a service at Elgin Cemetery - now the site of Channing Memorial Elementary School. Carriages filled with city councilmen and veterans, and marching bands were a regular part of the processional.
The desire for a permanent memorial soon arose, and a contract was let for a 27-foot-tall memorial from a Chicago manufacturer. As fate would have it, the firm was destroyed in the great Chicago Fire of 1871. Five years later, the memorial - inscribed with the more than 60 names of those who died in the Civil War - was dedicated before a crowd of 5,000 people at Elgin Cemetery.
In the years ahead, coordination of Elgin's memorial services was taken over by the members of the G.A.R., whose Elgin chapter was formed following the war.
By the early 1890s, the aging veterans formed a new organization - the Elgin Patriotic Memorial Association - to carry on the work. The new group was made up of more than a dozen organizations including veteran's organizations, several ethnic clubs, and women's groups.
Union soldiers continued to stay involved by sending several members to each area school in the weeks preceding the holiday. They also fought fervently to maintain the solemnity of the day as baseball games, bicycle races, circuses, car races, and other recreational events began competing for peoples' attention.
The makeup of the E.P.M.A. has changed over time, as certain members including the Women's Relief Corps, Elgin German Benevolent Society, and the Women's Christian Temperance Union have ceased to exist. Still others, including American Legion Post 57, VFW Post 1307, and the Elgin Navy Club Ship No. 7 have come on board over the years.
Elgin Cemetery, or "Old Cem," was once that the focal point, but that distinction now belongs to Bluff City Cemetery. With the addition of newer cemeteries, veteran's tributes have also been expanded to include Mount Hope and Lake Street cemeteries. A service to honor those who lost their life at sea is also held in the city’s downtown, and the Valley Fox Trot, a race through Elgin that attracts thousands, is kicked off each year with a military color guard.
This year's ceremony at Bluff City Cemetery - like its predecessors - will include the reading of the "Gettysburg Address" and General Logan's Order No. 11. A school band will play and the roll call of veterans who died over the past year will be read.
The most solemn moment of the morning will be the laying of the wreaths at the foot of the G.A.R. monument - the same memorial dedicated at Elgin Cemetery more than a century ago - and which has served as a focal point of the service since.
People - young and old - who attend Elgin's Memorial Day service - say it is a very moving tribute experience. We hope you will join us at one of this this year’s programs to experience this yourself.
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