According to Sherman family folklore, my father stopped after school one day and picked some tulips for his mother. Startled, she asked where he had gotten them. “Mount Hope Cemetery,” he replied innocently. He was not aware that he was taking something planted in memory of another’s loved one.
Although I have never stolen flowers from any cemeteries, I have visited quite a few. The thought came to mind last week in anticipation of Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the origin of the day dates back to 1868. Three years after the Civil War ended, the head of an organization of Union veterans established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Decoration Day eventually became Memorial Day and continues to be one of our nation’s most important holidays.
I have visited Arlington several times. It never fails to impress and humble me as I stare out across row upon row of silent military headstones.
We managed to visit Hudson View Cemetery in Mechanicville, New York, site of the final resting place of Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer killed in the Civil War and namesake of my great-grandfather. My son has “Ellsworth” as his middle name.
We were actually at a journalism conference and the extra few miles seemed worth the effort. After all, what’s a family vacation without visiting a cemetery?
Gettysburg National Cemetery was on my list while visiting the small Pennsylvania borough last summer. It was the week of the 150th anniversary observance of the three-day battle that altered the course of the Civil War.
I offered my wife the opportunity to sleep in that morning, and later, enjoy the pool, while I set off to roam the battlefield and photograph the cemetery. She called me around 1 that afternoon and asked how it was going – and when I expected to return to the motel.
“Well, I was all over the field and I just got to the cemetery,” I explained.
“Never mind,” she said.
On this day, a few Civil War re-enactors were keeping visitors spellbound with descriptions of their fellow soldiers told as if they were one of the men actually engaged in the battle. Nearby, children skipped among the square, white stones marking the individual graves of hundreds of unknown soldiers.
Yet history enthusiasts residing in Western New York don’t have to go far to experience a very special cemetery. Located on Aero Drive in Cheektowaga just north of the Greater Buffalo International Airport is the War of 1812 Cemetery also known as the “Garrison Cemetery.”
It is one of the few cemeteries in North America containing only the remains of soldiers from that war. Men who fought for both the United States and Great Britain are buried there, most in mass graves. The total number of remains is estimated at approximately 600.
An annual observance is scheduled there at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, June 8, and is worth attending. Representatives from both the U.S. and Canada are expected to be present. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the dedication of an American cannon that was used in the war. Captured by the British, it was removed to Canada where it remained for decades. The ceremony held at the site on Memorial Day 1939 was organized primarily by the Buffalo Historical Society.
History is often found in unusual places. But if you stroll through a cemetery, please don’t pick the tulips.
(David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at email@example.com.)