Memorial Ceremonies at the Graves of Our Soldiers:150 Years Later, We Remember the Words of Mayor Fay, During the First Ever ‘Decoration Day’ Ceremonies

Relating a speech given by Chelsea Mayor Fay on the first-ever Decoration Day on Saturday, May 30, 1868, in the Garden Cemetery, Chelsea


The rain, which had fallen in torrents during the night and morning, ceased as the hour of service approached; the procession formed at City Hall at 2 P.M., and marched to the Garden Cemetery, full 500 strong.  The graves were already decorated by friendly hands ere the official services commenced, and subsequent favors of wreaths and flowers were a confirmatory expression of the general faith and love.  All eyes were dim with tears.  The singing of the young ladies of the public schools, the dirge, the prayer by Rev. Mr. Cudworth, contributed to the solemnity of the scene in a remarkable manner.  The address by Hon. Frank B. Fay was listened to with profound attention. The full text of the speech is as follows:

Soldiers and Sailors of the Grand Army, Fellow-Citizens, Friends:  We scatter flowers to-day upon the graves of the fallen of our country’s defenders.  Not alone because they rest here, but in token of what the whole army of patriots, living and dead, achieved, that we and they, and their and our descendants, might have peaceful homes and a united country.

It is the idea, the devotion to duty, that we honor. The dead martyr seems more honored by these testimonial and memorial services; but when we remember that the bullet which providentially passed one man, pierced the heart of his comrade, we may believe that  the motive, the courage, the risk, were to each the same, and to each like honor is due.

It is fitting that you do not surround this ceremony with the emblems of sadness, but rather with the cheerful voices of the young, and the beauty of bright flowers.  For well do we know how cheerfully these men suffered, and risked and gave up their lives.  They would say to-day, as they often said upon the field, “Shed no tears for us, for in no better cause could we have died.”

It is fitting, too, that the tribute of to-day should be a floral one, typical of the fragrant and beautiful memory of the volunteers, who, along the lines of battle-fields, were mustered out of earth’s service to join the “noble army of martyrs.”  They often said, “Bury me in the field when I die.  I am not anxious where my bones shall lie; I am content to live only in the memory of my friends.”  But they could not realize how precious to those at home was the clay in which once beat the heart of love, and hence the effort, so often  made, to recover their bodies and “tenderly” send them home for burial.

But many found their graves where they fell, some buried by comrades, many by the enemy, some in camps at the front, and some at hospital in the rear.  Some came home to die, at once, with kindred, some lingered for months, and some are suffering to-day, but still live.  Some are recorded among the “unknown,” and no trace of them has been found.

And so our Chelsea men were scattered from Blackburn’s Ford through all the fields in Virginia, at Gettysburg and Antietam, and other fields in Maryland; in North Carolina, and on the sandy shores of South Carolina; at Andersonville, and in other parts of Georgia; in Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and at the hospitals on Ohio, Illinois, Rhode Island, Baltimore, Alexandria, and Washington; and here around this monument, and in other parts of this cemetery, at Woodlawn, and in other parts of New England, are the known and unknown graves.

And if, to-day, we cannot strew living flowers upon all their resting-places, we may bedew them with the moisture of our gratitude, and surround their names and their deeds with a wreath of affectionate remembrance.  We have been and are grateful to all these for what they have done and suffered and sacrificed for us; and if spirits are permitted to revisit the earth, we may believe theirs are hovering about us to-day, grateful for this remembrance.

We know this tribute cannot restore them to us, nor are monuments needed to keep alive their memories of their deeds; but they show to each succeeding generation how much we revere the spirit which animated these men, and how much we value the blessings they have conferred upon us.

This monument, erected by the city government, marks the spot where the ashes of some of our soldiers are laid, and is appropriate for the purpose.  Another, erected by the people, more elaborate and more central, awaits the statue of the soldier, and ere long will be complete.  And when succeeding city governments appreciate the situation, and with a wise economy make the surroundings fitting and ornamental, we shall have a resort, attractive to the eye and useful to the people, so that, on future anniversaries of this day, wreaths may be hung on that monument, to recognize it as a memorial of the gratitude of the people, as this is of the municipality.  “And may this generation not pass away until these things be fulfilled.”

But besides the marble and the granite, we have the “bruised arms hung up for monuments,” the maimed bodies, the shattered constitutions, the widows and the orphans; all these tell us of their suffering and our duty.

I think I may be pardoned if I use, for a moment, the first person, at a time like this, when so many personal recollections crowd upon me – of my personal relations with nearly all of these men – recollections of their enlistment and their service – of their being wounded, or dead, which I had the opportunity of sending to their friends – of last messages carried to them in courage and patience under suffering – of their thoughtfulness of others and neglect of self – and of the burials in the field.  We had little time for the dead; too little for the living.

These remembrances cluster as well about the men before me, some of whom, with severe wounds, I long since expected to follow to their graves.  I remember kindness bestowed upon me, kind words spoken, and I could not forbear this allusion to a grateful experience, which is every day becoming more so by reviving memories.

And this gives me an opportunity to recognize the members of another Post, from the Island Ward, who were so much associated with Chelsea soldiers during the war.  They were our nearest neighbors, and we came to know each other in the field as neighbors ought to be known.  They are welcome here to-day, and will ever be when brave men are to be honored.

And I am glad to allude to our chaplain, who, to use his own words, “volunteered his services from no love of warfare, but simply because, with all his heart, he believed in Liberty and the Union.”  For three years, with but one week’s absence, he “showed his faith by his works,” in all the fields of the Army of the Potomac, stood by the soldiers in their hours of joy and sorrow, death and burial; and many of our own men, and hundreds more, are indebted to him for his anxiety to promote their moral, spiritual, and physical well-being.  It is fitting that he should participate in the services of to-day.

But, soldiers, with all your suffering, you would not barter your service or your wounds for bars of gold.  You sometimes thought you would be forgotten after the war.  But there was too much good faith and honor in this people, and you have already been assured to the contrary.

That there will be individual instances of forgetfulness and neglect, is doubtless true; but you do not forget the reception of the dead and living, the National and State laws that have sought the comfort of your families, the recognition of preferred claims to employment – and this, too, when prosperity in business has not been the rule, but the exception.  Let us have no fear that the country, the State, or the city, will ever be less mindful of their obligations or less expressive of their gratitude.

And if it should ever again be said, that the men of our army had other incentives to enter the service beside their patriotism, it may be replied, “Go, find the lowest, most reckless, most worthless man in the community, who has not been in the service, and ask him to name a price for which he would now risk a like exposure of life and limb.”  Rest assured, no price can be found high enough for an inducement; and thus every man ought to be convinced that there was a higher than any mercenary motive that impelled these men to enter the service.

And when we remember, that of the three companies especially enlisted in Chelsea, nearly one half were killed, wounded, or died by reason of their service, we shall more fully appreciate the danger to which all soldiers were exposed, and the devotion to their country which they exhibited.

Of the 150 men who entered the navy from Chelsea, very few were either wounded or killed; but there was among them equal love of country, equal courage, equal devotion to the service, and, living or dead, they should have equal honor.

But we remember, on all these memorial days, the dear ones whom the departed left, the widows and orphans, fathers and mothers; and they, too, appreciate our remembrance.

But we do realize the noble sacrifice of the wives who cheerfully parted with their husbands, mothers with their sons, sisters with their brothers? – how with their own hands they girded upon them the sword or the knapsack, and bid them God-speed, when they could almost as easily have severed their heartstrings.  I had constant opportunity to know the cheerfulness with which they made the sacrifice, and how anxious they were that the name of their dear one should be untarnished, and would say, “Better dead than dishonored.”

And we remember, too, those earnest women, who, upon the faith that all men are brothers, and all soldiers patriots, during the whole war kept up a constant supply of those comforts but for which more of you might be resting under this monument.  I have a thousand reasons for being grateful to them; I know you have.

And so you remember with gratitude those other women who went to the field, and accepted hardship and sacrifice to care for you and your associates.

And, at this hour, we cannot but recall the recent translation of one of those dear to you, to me, and to thousands besides – one who sought to do her work with patriotic devotion to the cause and an earnest love of the flag, and who found in her ministry to her country’s defenders a constant joy.∗  The grief at her loss, which wrings my heart to-day, must find its only balm in the faith that all must be well which is ordered from on high.  And if she never more smile upon us on earth, we have always with us the memory of a beautiful life.

I am grateful that she had one opportunity to participate in a ceremony like this, when, in 1866, a few of us, men and women of Massachusetts, visited Belle Isle, and decorated with flowers the graves of the Union soldiers who died there while prisoners.  That service was a sad one compared with this, for it recalled a thousand painful memories.

SOLDIERS OF POSTS 35 and 23:  To-day, all over this land, in every hamlet, in every city, upon lonely graves, in national, public, and private ceremonies, you and your associates make this floral fraternal tribute.  In doing it, you express your own affection and a nation’s gratitude.  You awake anew the memories of the lost – the war – the victory.  And if our human hearts will sometimes make us grieve for those who, too soon, have “gone before,” we must remember that men

“Live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths;

In feelings, not in figures on a dial;

and that

“He most lives

Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.”


At the conclusion of Mr. Fay’s address, Mayor Frost made the following brief remarks:

SOLDIERS AND SAILORS OF THE GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC:  The eloquent sentiments expressed in the address and prayer leave but little for me to say.

The civil authorities of our city have gladly responded to your invitation, and are here present to join with you in this pleasant duty of scattering flowers – those beautiful emblems of God’s smiles – upon the graves of those who gave their lives for our beloved country.

While we thus honor their memory, we also honor the surviving heroes of those battles which saved us in the days of peril.  And we trust that generation after generation may continue this practice of decorating the graves of these patriots; thus teaching their descendants, through all future time, that whenever our country is in danger, those men who spring to her defense shall never be forgotten.

After the decoration services in the Garden Cemetery, the procession reformed and visited Woodlawn, where the graves of our buried soldiers were also decorated.  There also the grave of Mrs. Helen Gilson Osgood was decorated in an like manner – flowers in great variety and profusion.



[For Massachusetts residents, Belle Isle does not refer to that marshland of the Revere/East Boston border area; it was the name of a notorious prison in Richmond where Union soldiers starved to death.

∗ Helen L. Gilson (Osgood).

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