There was a time when Memorial Day, which takes place this year on Monday, May 27, was known as Decoration Day, a sorrowful holiday that drew countless men, women and children to cemeteries across the nation where they placed flowers on the graves of Civil War veterans.
The Union Cemetery in Redwood City is home to a grim reminder of the cataclysmic struggle between the North and South that unshackled slaves. The cemetery, located off Woodside Road, features a plot that has 46 headstones above the graves of Union army veterans. As in the past, this Memorial Day will see visitors place flowers and flags on the graves in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) plot where the ex-soldiers rest under a statue of a Civil War soldier who stands guard.
With so much in the news lately about “reparations” for descendants of slaves, it is fitting to recall President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and its line about “the brave men, living and dead” who “consecrated” the Gettysburg battlefield “far above our poor power to add or detract.”
The “brave men” President Lincoln immortalized in his famous speech included James Henry Baxter who was wounded in the neck with a sword at Gettysburg. His tombstone was the last to be erected at the Redwood City GAR plot. The tombstone was placed in 1984 even though Baxter died in Redwood City in 1936 at the age of 92 and was buried at the foot of the statue of the Union soldiers. His resting place was unmarked until relatives had a stone marker placed on his grave.
Men who fought in units from several states are buried in the Redwood City cemetery. Missouri, Ohio, Maryland, Illinois and New York are among the states represented. The remains in the plot include those of George Filkins, a lieutenant who fought at Missionary Ridge, Nashville and Stone River. Lt. William Frisbie, who served with the 19th infantry of the Wisconsin Volunteers at such bloody battles as York River, Suffolk and James River, also rests there.
For years after the Civil War veterans’ groups failed to hold ceremonies at Union Cemetery because there was no one buried there who served in what they called “the War for the Union.” By 1887, there were six veterans’ graves to decorate with flowers. The increase led the GAR, composed of Civil War Union Army veterans, to buy the land for the present plot.
According to newspaper accounts, former Civil War soldiers first took part in Decoration Day services at the cemetery in 1886. It didn’t take long for this practice to become a traditional event. By 1927, hundreds attended observances that included marching bands. In that year, four Civil War veterans “rode in machines” during a parade “and occupied seats on the platform,” according to newspaper reports. The San Mateo County Times & Gazette’s coverage of the 1890 Decoration Day ceremonies said a procession of patriotic citizens marched from Broadway (then called Bridge Street) and Main Street to the cemetery where the statue of the soldier was covered with garlands of evergreens and roses.
The statue, which over the years would be vandalized several times, was erected in 1889 and includes these words: “To the members of California’s patriotic dead who served during the War for the Union.” Near the base are the words “mustered out,” a military term meaning discharged. Discharged, yes, but not forgotten.
The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday. Objects in The Mirror are closer than they appear.