The area where the Lincoln Memorial now stands was a vast, wildlife-inhabited stream called Tiber Creek and the U.S. Treasury remained only half completed when Gen. John A Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, directed Union veterans to carry out Order No.11.
The order reached GAR headquaters at 446 14th St. on May 5, 1868:
"The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated 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 lie in almost every city, village and hamlet church yard in the land."
When Logan ordered what he viewed as an ancient and beautiful rite of respect for the dead, little did he dream that Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day, would become one of America's most cherished traditions. From the very first Decoration Day, government departments in the District were closed by executive order. On Aug. 1, 1888, Congress established Decoration Day as a public holiday in the District of Columbia. Tradition carried it much further.
The Civil War had ended only a few years before that first Decoration Day was observed. Washington was then suffering the growing pains of a developing city and struggling with political divisions resulting from the war.
Black politicians -- products of the reconstructions of a defeated South -- could be seen riding along Pennsylvania Avenue past the studio of Matthew Brady, the noted Civil War photographer, or by newspaper offices along Newspaper Row, on lower 14th Street.
During the spring of 1868 the House of Representatives had voted to impeach President Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat and Lincoln's vice president. Only the dissenting vote of a Kansas senator kept the Senate shy of a conviction.
Hotels, like the Ebbit House and the Willard -- often the residence of government officials -- were centres of political and social activity. It was at the Willard that former President John Tyler had given a peace address just before the Civil War started; Julia Ward Howe composed the Battle Hymn of the Republic there and General Logan originated Order No.11.
In her "Reminiscences of a Soldier's Wife," the general's wife, Mary Simmerson Logan, writes of a Confederate cemetery she had seen in St. Petersburg. Accompanied by her two children and friend Col. Charles L. Wilson, editor of the Chicago Journal, his niece and fiance, Mrs. Logan saw "hundreds of graves of Confederate soldiers with small, and bleached Confederate flags, faded flowers and wreaths."
"I had never been so touched as I was by seeing the little flags and the withered flowers that had been laid on these graves," she told her husband.
The general agreed that "It was a beautiful revival of the custom of the ancients in preserving the memory of the dead."
As chief of the GAR, Logan said he would issue an order for the decoration of the graves of Union soldiers. An enthusiastic Wilson offered to publicize the event in his newspaper.
On the afternoon of May 29 and the morning of May 30th, a decoration committee busily received and arranged flowers and evergreens at the Foundry Methodist Church at 14th and G streets NW. Ambulances took the flowers to a 1 p.m. ceremony at Arlington Cemetery.
Flowers were contributed form the gardens of District residents, the U.S. Botanical Gardens, the President's Conservatory and the Treasury.
The service, closely adhering to the stately manner Logan had requested, was held in front of the Custis-Lee Mansion and attended by government and community dignitaries and District residents.
The Rev. Byron Sunderland, among others, offered prayers. Hymns and patriotic songs were sung and an original poem read by John C. Smith. James A. Garfield was the speaker. The program concluded with a solemn dirge played by the 44th Infantry Band.
Then children of the Soldiers and Sailors Orphan Asylum, along with officers and managers of the asylum, accompanied friends and members of the decoration committee in a march around the cemetery to strew flowers on the graves. They halted at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers who fell in Virginia. These were the remains, gathered between 1866 and 1868, of 2,111 Union soldiers slain near Virginia's Rappahanock RIver.
Later the marchers placed a wreath on the Lincoln statue on the west entrance of the Capitol Rotunda.
Now the District approaches its 110th observance of Decoration Day. As in decoration days gone by, there will be flowers, flags and marching soldiers. But perhaps most precious of all will be the personal remembrances of past memorial days celebrated in the tradition and spirt of Order No.11.
Midred Thompson, a descendant of artist Constantino Brumidi, and Katherine Knicley have observed decoration days at Glenwood Cemetery in Northeast since the early 1920s. Incorporated by an act of Congress in 1854, it is one of the four oldest cemeteries in the city and the resting place fof many Union soldiers.
Maybe the remembrances of Decoration Day and Glenwood are just coincidence.Or perhaps they are long-cherished remmants of practices directed by General Logan in Order No. 11:
"Let us then at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds with choicest flowers of Springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor.
"Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners.
"Let no vandalism or avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.
"If other eyes grow dull and other Lands slack . . . in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remains in us."
Her eyes shining, her voice full of wonderment, Thompson recalled, "The school children were asked to bring a bouquet of flowers to school a few days before Decoration Day. They'd have a big, tin washtub in the hallway and all the children would bring garden flowers and put them in the washtub. Oh, we would have Sweet Williams, daisys, every kind of garden flower. Then someone would come by and pick them up to be distributed on the graves Decoration Day."The Boy Scouts put the flags and poppies on the graves."
"She's absolutely right!" said Knicley of Thompson's recollections. "We'd take anything that was in bloom: roses, peonies, lilacs, snowballs - various spring flowers. There were no bought flowers. It was from the heart.
"In those days, the 1920s, everyone went to the cemetery on Decoration Day. Every grave had a representative. We had sort of a different feeling than what the younger people have today. There was a feeling of respect back then."
Chuckling softly, Thompson recalled how her mother always kept an eye on her and a cousin.
"She would get after us if we got near to walking on a grave," she said.
Knicley fondly remembered when the caretakers "would trim around (the graves). They planted little flowers around them. And I've seen them take a brush and water and wash off the monuments. I've done it myself.?
But visits to Glenwood were not just for Decoration Day, said Knicley. The cemeteries, she said, were landscaped and maintained much like parks. Families visted on every important holiday - Easter, Christmas, Labor Day.
"When the old folks lived on Evarts Street (NE) we used to walk through Glenwood everyday. Glenwood was like a second home.
"The cemetery was beautiful," she said, her voice growing mellow. "They have lovely dogwood trees, oak, cherry and honeysuckle trees. You knew the whippoorwills, the blbwhites and all the different variety of birds singing. You would be sitting on the back porch at night and the scent of the honeysuckle was heavenly. It was, it was . . " she groped for a word and found one the General Logan had used, "sacred."