Lincoln and Memorial Day
This post is the second in a three-part series about holidays held in the Village, a collaboration between GVSHP and the students in NYU’s Fall 2014 Intro to Public History course. In conjunction with the public program held on Wednesday, December 17th, each group was also tasked with sharing their discoveries with us on Off the Grid.
The following post was written by Christina Thompson, Nora Gorman, and Jennifer Pleska.
New York City served as a political hotspot during the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865. Greenwich Village witnessed memorable moments from the Civil War years including the Great Union Meeting in Union Square on April 20, 1861, the New York City Draft Riots in July of 1863, and Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession through Union Square on April 25, 1865. The city and its citizens felt the heated emotions, political tensions, and divisive issues more intimately than most other places in the United States. In New York City and across the country, the years following the Civil War impacted the American holiday calendar as we know it today. Holidays such as Thanksgiving and Memorial Day and celebrations of individuals like Lincoln helped unite the country and give Americans a common focus.
In spite of the bohemian and independent reputation Greenwich Village became known for in the mid-twentieth century, a hundred years earlier it was a genteel neighborhood in which New Yorkers convened to remember one of the greatest American presidents. Of Abraham Lincoln’s trips to New York State, his visit to the city on February 27, 1860, is the most famous. On that day, he was photographed by Mathew Brady—still renowned for his images of Gettysburg—and gave a passionate anti-slavery address at Cooper Union. The speech, and its circulation in Horace Greeley’s Tribune, helped Lincoln secure the Republican nomination. Though Tammany Democrats dominated New York in the 1860s, after the President’s death, the city would play a crucial role in honoring his memory.
The assassination of Lincoln on Good Friday, April 14, 1865 devastated the country and propelled Americans into a national state of mourning. Despite its conflicted viewpoints of Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War, New York City was no exception to the national mood of grief felt in the aftermath of Lincoln’s sudden death. What should have been an occasion of rejoicing became one of mourning. New Yorkers draped black and white muslin over the front of buildings and shops throughout the city. They lined the streets from Lower Manhattan to Greenwich Village to outwardly express their somber feelings. Businesses were closed on April 19, the day of the funeral in Washington, and the following day for prayer. Lincoln’s remains processed through the city on their way to Springfield on April 25. The procession began at City Hall and went up Broadway to Union Square, where there was a ceremony. The ceremony was performed by different religious leaders from the City. As one newspaper reported about the procession and ceremony, “All Nationalities, All Religions, All Trades, All Classes, All Politics, All Colors Represented.” The spectators of the procession and ceremony numbered three-quarters of a million at a time when the entire city’s population was just barely more than that. Following the ceremony, the procession went along 14th Street to 5th Avenue where it headed north to 34th Street and west to the Hudson River Train Depot so the remains could continue to Albany. In the time that followed the ceremony, the people of New York wanted a way to remember and honor President Lincoln in the years to come.
In the 1860s, two of the city’s most powerful rival organizations—the Union League Club and Tammany Hall—maintained their headquarters in Union Square. The Union League Club, comprised of blue-blooded, often wealthy men, championed Republicanism, patriotism, and patronage of the arts; they were instrumental in establishing the Metropolitan Museum. In 1867, they commissioned the statue of Lincoln presently located in the northern section of Union Square. Unveiled in 1871, it was originally located at the corner of Union Square West and 14th Street. Designed by Henry Kirke Brown—who also designed the 1854 equestrian statue of George Washington in Union Square—it depicts Lincoln as a neoclassical hero, dressed in a contemporary suit but draped in a Roman toga, and holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation printed on a scroll.
Unfortunately, the sculpture was widely panned by the press. A New York Times reporter called it “A frightful object.” The public, however, embraced it during ceremonies on holidays like Memorial Day, which was then commonly referred to as Decoration Day, since it grew out of the Civil War custom of decorating fallen soldiers’ graves. In the 1870s and 1880s, the decoration of the statue with garlands and flowers often served as the starting point for processions down Broadway.
The tradition of decorating soldiers’ graves transformed into an official national holiday called Memorial Day in 1889. The United States Congress passed legislation declaring May 30 the day of observation. Memorial Day and its associated customs grew into a more structured celebration toward the turn of the century. In 1895, New York City witnessed one of the largest celebrations of veterans and the military. The city held a parade with more than 25,000 people. The parade traveled down 5th Avenue, starting at 59th Street. The final review occurred at the Washington Arch in Washington Square Park.
The parade’s diversity increased with each year. More African-American regiments participated as well as women’s organizations such as the Daughters of Union Veterans. In 1898, the Memorial Day celebrations assumed more meaning as Americans were once again at war. The Spanish-American War caused New Yorkers to reflect on the meaning of the holiday as they once again sent loved ones off to battle. For New Yorkers, Memorial Day became a way to express their patriotism and enthusiasm. After 1898, Memorial Day no longer focused solely on Civil War veterans. The holiday encompassed all individuals who took up arms and served the United States.