A Catskill Catalog: May 23, 2012

The year 1913 marked the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the Civil War, three days of carnage that assured the survival of the constitution and the nation.
Civil War veterans were uniformly old men, and 50 years after their service had saved the United States, they were dying off rapidly. The whole country was eager to honor them and memorialize the 625,000 Americans, north and south, who died in the Civil War.

From June 29 to July 4 of that year, over 53,000 veterans gathered at the Gettysburg Battlefield, including 8,750 confederate veterans. The Great Encampment Gettysburg Reunion was to be the largest assemblage of Civil War veterans ever, a kind of late-in-life Woodstock that celebrated and identified a generation, this one a generation at the end of its run.

Margaretville anticipated the excitement of the national anniversary celebration and beat it by a month! On Decoration Day, May 30, 1913, 25 veterans of the Civil War rode in automobiles from the high school, today’s fire station, through the principal streets of the village, to the cemetery, where the graves of veterans were decorated with flags, and memorial ceremonies were held.
Automobiles were still a bit of a novelty, and their presence lent to the excitement of the parade. Marchers were asked to gather “at the High School grounds at 8:30 o’clock sharp,” and the line of march stepped off promptly at 9 a.m.

Led by the Parade Marshall and the colors, the Margaretville band gave music to the march, followed by the automobile-riding veterans of the Civil War. Eleven of the 25 were residents of Margaretville. The others gathered here from around the county and the region.
Fife and drums marched and played behind the last automobile, as the parade moved down Church Street, turned up Walnut, made a parade-left maneuver to march down Swart Street, another on Academy, and then left, right, left, right with band, cars, vets, fife-and-drum marching up Main Street, where local businesses were red-white-and-blue festooned with flags flying.

A “Firing Squad Composed of Spanish War Veterans” marched behind the fife-and-drums. They would provide the memorial salute at the cemetery. Behind them, the Red Cross Society, mostly women, and then high school students, the Fire Department, and “Citizens.”
At the cemetery, Dr. Ashley Clark Follett gave a rousing patriotic speech. Dr. Follett was a North Kortright physician, a frequent visitor to Margaretville, and a Civil War veteran himself.
The graves of veterans of three wars were decorated. Afterwards, the Civil War veterans were feted with dinner at the Pocantico Inn, the posh hotel on Margaretville’s Main Street that attracted visitors from around the world. It was quite a day.

In 1913, my 1970s neighbor, the late Bob Russell, was seven. I wonder if his parents brought him over from New Kingston to see the parade? I didn’t know to ask him when I could.
What I do know, is that, every year, Bob and Kenny Sanford, Hap Hosier and a few others of the older guys in the village would decorate the graves of veterans in the valley’s two active, and three or four inactive, cemeteries.

New Kingston has a Revolutionary War veteran. Jacob Van Benschoten, founder of the village, is buried in a little side-hill cemetery that sits on a knoll just to the right of county Route 6 as you enter the village. It’s private property, part of the beautiful farm that spreads out behind it. Bob was always proud that Uncle Jacob’s grave was decorated every year, maybe every year since New Kingston’s own Revolutionary War veteran died in the early 1800s.

Memorial Day began at the end of the Civil War. In 1865, a group of newly-emancipated freemen in Charleston, South Carolina, marched to an old confederate prison to bury the remains of Union soldiers who had been held there.

Several small towns claim the origins of the holiday, as cleaning up and embellishing the graves of Civil War dead became a national obsession. After all, 625,000 men were gone, vanished, in a nation of 31 million. Figure half the population is female, and, with big families the norm, a third or more must have been kids, but lots of soldiers were only kids, really. Maybe one-out-of-every-three-or-four men alive in 1860 was dead in 1865. That kind of hole-in-the-heart will create an obsession with graves.

And there was already a tradition of commemorating the sacrifices of war in May. A Great Jubilee Day was first held on Monday, May 26, 1783, in North Stratford, Connecticut, to commemorate the end of fighting in the Revolutionary War. The Jubilee was celebrated with feasting, prayers, toasts, speeches, cannon blasts, and a demonstration of military maneuvers.
Great Jubilee Day became something of a minor Revolutionary War holiday, and clearly seems a precursor to our present day Memorial Day events.

Gettysburg was closer in time to the people of 1913 that D-Day is to us. Soon it will be 70 years since the invasion of Europe that changed the world. I hope, this year, a few World War II veterans will ride up Margaretville’s Main Street, honored by all of us, in one of those automobiles.
billbirns@gmail.com