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Our Rich History: The Cincinnati German origins of Memorial Day — here’s the connection

By Don Heinrich Tolzmann
Special to NKyTribune

While doing research for The Cincinnati Germans in the Civil War by Gustav Tafel, which I translated from German and edited for publication in 2011, I came across an interesting reference to Memorial Day.

It indicates that its origins may go back to a suggestion made by a Cincinnati German veteran of the Union Army.

Lt. Col. Robert B. Beath reported on this in his history of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the veterans association for Civil War soldiers. Beath had served as a past Commander of the GAR, and in 1888 published its official history: The History of the Grand Army of the Republic.

In it he explained the origins of Memorial Day and what the Cincinnati German connection was.

According to Beath, a Cincinnati German veteran of the Civil War wrote Norton P. Chipman, Adjutant-General of the GAR, suggesting that there be a day of commemoration for those who perished in the Civil War.

Chipman forwarded the idea to General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the GAR. He then followed up by issuing the order designating May 30, 1868, as a day of commemoration. Both Logan and Chipman signed the order.

Beath writes: “Early in May, 1868, Adjutant-General Chipman received a letter from some comrade then living, as he remembers, in Cincinnati, in which the writer referred to the fact that he had served as a private soldier in the Union Army; that in his native country, Germany, it was the custom of the people to assemble in the spring-time and scatter flowers upon the graves of the dead…. He suggested that the Grand Army of the Republic inaugurate such an observance in memory of the Union dead.”

Beath’s history is not well known, so I included information on it in the book I edited on the Cincinnati Germans in the Civil War.

Perhaps it was better known before World War I, but forgotten during that war’s anti-German hysteria, when it would be doubtful that the German-American origins of Memorial Day might be mentioned.

Don Heinrich Tolzmann is a nationally and regionally noted historian of German Americana. He has written and edited dozens of books, and contributed to many others, including The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky.

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