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Monday, May 30, 2005

Special Report: Westport’s First Memorial Day

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a David Press’s book in progress, “Between the Minuteman and the Doughboy.”  A 20-year Westport resident and history buff, Press is a member of Westport’s Planning and Zoning Commission.

By David Press

The first Memorial Day observance in Westport was not after World War II when the GIs came home to a thunderous applause and welcome. And it wasn’t started to commemorate Doughboys lost in the great war, “the war to end all wars,” World War I. peterfoote260.jpg
Civil War era: Peter Foote: member oif Grand Army of the Republic post. Contriibuted photo

It began much earlier with a nation weary from war, in a country that had been torn apart and was still trying to heal its wounds, a homeland still reeling from brother killing brother. Called Decoration Day, it began to commemorate local Union troops who had died in the Civil War.

Westport’s Civil War veterans were an odd mix of merchants and lawyers, farmers and carpenters, painters and oystermen. And more than 200 of the town’s men served the Union Army in Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor and Cedar Mountain, Va.; Port Hudson, La., and in Gettysburg, Pa. By the time the war ended in 1865, 24 of them were dead.

In the late 1870s, Westport veterans banded together to honor their fallen comrades in arms.They started by participating in what was slowly becoming a national trend—decorating the graves of the war dead on May 30. These ceremonies often included a parade to the cemetery, as well.

Getting this tradition started in Westport had its stalls and starts. By 1878, there were only 14 Civil War veterans buried in the town’s various cemeteries. Unable to put together a parade of their own, the veterans had marched as a unit in September 1879 in the Fire Department parade.

In 1880, George S. Smith, the Connecticut state commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, the large national veterans’ organization, asked the rector of Westport’s Memorial to hold a May 30 prayer service to honor the wear dead.

Local veterans, led by Capt. Henry P. Burr and Edward M. Lees, both prominent figures in town, held a meeting of veterans in Sturges Hall to arrange for what was then called “a Decoration Day parade and ceremony.”

Invitations were sent by this group of veterans to the town’s three fire companies, who were asked to march alongside the veterans. The Westport Band was also engaged to march and local clergymen were more than happy to participate. But for some reason the local fire companies declined the invitation to march, and the 1880 Decoration Day parade was canceled.

Undaunted, the veterans met at Henry Burr�s home on the afternoon of Decoration Day. From there they formed a company and marched as a group to the cemeteries to decorate the veterans� graves.

The graves that were visited and decorated with flowers by the veterans that day were:
Christ Church: Philo Jones Jr. 5th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry;Geo H Guernsey 17th CVI; W H Smith 28th CVI;Fred J Wright 177th NY Volunteers
Old Cemetery: Lewis Burr Hendricks 17th CVI
Evergreen : Samuel Morehouse 14th;Henry Richards 8th NY Vol;David Bothwell 17th;Stephen Banks 28th
Catholic: Michael Condon 5th;Terrence Carroll 28th;Roger Byron 8th;Michael Dwyer 8th;Michael Shaugnessy USN; ________Cody USN
Willowbrook: William G. Sheldon
Greens Farms: Peter Lewis 17th CVI; Burr Robinson 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery
In 1881 and again in 1882, there was no public observance of Decoration Day in Westport. In April of 1883, a group of local veterans met at Sturges Hall to consider forming a Grand Army of the Republic post in Westport. Organizers estimated that between 75 and 100 Civil War veterans then lived in Westport. This included those who had lived in Westport before the war, and those who had moved here when the war ended.

On April 26, 1883, Westport’s Civil War veterans formed the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) post and elected their first slate of officers. Led by Commander Henry P. Burr, a former postmaster, State Representative and Town Clerk, and Vice Commander Edward M. Lees, a lawyer and also a former postmaster, the GAR read like a cross section of the Westport at the time.

Members included: Peter R. Foote, a house painter; George Hale, a farmer; Jonathan C. Taylor, lawyer;  Robert R. Snagg and Charles H Olmstead, both housepainters;  and saloon keeper Henry F. Pennoyer. Of these men, all but Pennoyer had lived in Westport before the war.

In May 1885, the GAR post officers noted that the celebration of Decoration Day was becoming common around the country, and they set about organizing a parade for Westport. The post first established a committee to solicit funds for the parade and memorial ceremonies.

Its members included Henry Burr, Edward Lees, Edward Allen and William E. Albin. The second committee set up to find speakers and choreograph music comprised John J. Perry, William C. Staples and William G. Staples. Peter Foote and Thomas Glynn were to mark the graves of the veterans. This time, Westport’s firefighters accepted the invitation to march.

Capt. James E. Hubbell, the proprietor of Hubbell & Bradley, a Saugatuck grocery and hardware store, served as the parade’s first grand marshall. Marchers followed a route that stopped at each of the town’s four downtown cemeteries where tombstones were decorated.

The parade first went from Main Street to Evergreen Cemetery. Then it snaked up Washington Avenue to Willowbrook Cemetery. From there the parade traveled along Canal Street to King Street, which is now Kings Highway North, the town’s first Roman Catholic cemetery, before continuing to decorate graves at the adjacent Christ Church cemetery.

From there, the parade continued along King Street, to Wright Street to State Street, which is now Post Road West. It then turned left to National Hall, where speeches and more ceremonies took place.

In its May 30, 1885 edition, the town’s newspaper,  Westporter, showcased a front page roster of 25 Civil War veterans buried in town. It also carried an even longer list of town stores in town that had, for the first time, closed shop for the day to commemorate those who made the ultimate sacrifice. A Memorial Day tradition had begun.


Posted 05/30/05 at 04:43 AM  Permalink


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Fascinating information about a subject I never even thought about—who knew Memorial Day started out as a grave-decorating tradition?!  I look forward to David’s upcoming book.

Posted by Dan Woog on May 30, 2005 at 07:55 PM | #

Just a little clarification…Peter Lewis, my GGG Grandfather, actually served with the Co. E of the 12th NY Volunteer Infantry, not the 17th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. My other GGG Grandfather, Benjamin Brotherton, served with Co. E of the 17th CVI throughout the war. His house still stands on Roseville Road (for now).

For anyone who is interested in the history of the 17th CVI, otherwise known as the “Fairfield County Regiment”, check out the above URL.

Posted by Dale Call on May 31, 2005 at 12:36 AM | #

The missing URL is:


Posted by Dale Call on May 31, 2005 at 12:49 AM | #

We really should have a civil war memorial to join the Minuteman,the Doughboy and the monuments to all our veterans.  Ed Keehan- are you available? Dale?

Posted by Carl Leaman on May 31, 2005 at 04:39 PM | #

We really should have a civil war memorial to join the Minuteman,the Doughboy and the monuments to all our veterans.  Ed Keehan- are you available? Dale?

Posted by Carl Leaman on May 31, 2005 at 04:39 PM | #


For years Bill Gladstone (formerly of Westport and a renowned expert on the role of African-American soldiers in the Civil War) sent a letter to the Westport News giving the history of Memorial Day and pointing out the absence of a monument of any type to Westport’s Civil War soldiers. I guess the attitude for years was that if the veterans themselves did not erect one, why do so now.

A strong case could be made that the one true memorial to the Civil War veterans is the fact that the United States of America still exists…a fact that could not be taken for granted in 1861.

I for one would like to see a monument joining the others on the green.

Posted by Dale Call on May 31, 2005 at 08:33 PM | #