The Civil War Comes Alive at 150th Memorial Day

Reenactor groups from North and South will camp at the Living History encampment on Oak Island to provide a glimpse of life during the Civil War.

Waterloo historians explain that on a spring day in 1865, the village’s druggist Henry C. Welles watched as a lone widow walked to the cemetery to place flowers on the grave of her deceased Civil War-soldier husband. How soon they will forget, Welles thought, resolving to do something to make sure those who gave their lives in defense of their country would not be forgotten. Working with General John B. Murray, Welles planned the first Memorial Day in Waterloo in 1866, and for 150 consecutive years, Waterloo’s citizens have remembered fallen soldiers with parades, prayers and ceremonies. On May 26, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a Presidential Proclamation recognizing Waterloo as the official Birthplace of Memorial Day.

Waterloo, the official birthplace of Memorial Day, will return to 1865 during its annual Celebrate Commemorate observance, Friday, May 27 through Monday, May 30.

The goal is to help people in this century – especially students – understand the significance of the Civil War, says Caren Cleaveland, chair of the observance’s Living History events. “Not just because it was the foundation of much of our modern technology, from military tactics and weapons to canned food, but also to honor the ambition to create one people out of settlers and immigrants, from every corner of the globe.

“We must also always think about what caused the war, to ensure history is not repeated.”

So, in addition to craft and art shows, parades, history tours, musical performances and a 5K, Celebrate Commemorate will also host a roster of re-enactor dignitaries that includes Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, Clara Barton, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, plus a doctor, a photographer and some spies. What’s more, re-enactor groups from up and down the East Coast will assemble in a Waterloo encampment to allow visitors to experience camp life and military drills as they were in the great conflict.

Among them will be Cleaveland, who began as a re-enactor with the 148th New York Volunteers group 16 years ago. Later, she discovered that her third great-grandfather was a farrier with the Sixth Michigan Calvary, so she joined the Daughters of the Union Veterans of the Civil War. In 2010, she founded Waterloo’s Mary Gahan Tent 109, named for a Waterloo woman who went to war with her husband, Jerome, and served as a seamstress and laundress. Today the tent has 24 members who meet monthly at the American Legion. They are among 175 members of five Daughters of the Civil War tents in the state.

There are 71 re-enactor organizations and 19 descendant groups in New York State alone. In addition, New York is home to 21 genealogical organizations and seven historical institutes. There is even an organization of descendants of members of Lincoln’s cabinet.

At 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 28, the major event of the Living History program will be held at Waterloo’s American Civil War Memorial. Called the Reconciliation Observance, “It will be a celebration of unity and peace,” notes Cleaveland. In attendance will the historic presenters, the U.S. Commander of the Sons of Union Veterans, and the past National President of the Daughters of the Union Veterans of the Civil War. The final four stars will be inscribed on the memorial’s Star Stone that commemorates all those who died in the Civil War.

Celebrate Commemorate concludes a month-long observance in which Waterloo remembers and honors soldiers from all wars who died preserving our country’s freedom. Among the dramatizations, concerts and talks are a double book signing on Thursday, May 12 with the authors of The History of Candy and Who Ate It and Seneca County and the Civil War. A fashion show, “Women’s Rights to Grand Victorian” will be held Saturday afternoon, May 14, and a Civil War Ball will be held that evening. The National Memorial Day Museum on East Main Street will feature special exhibits and talks.

The village will mark the “official” Memorial Day on May 30, as it always has. Everyone is invited to take part in the day’s events. They begin with a Mass at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery followed by a veteran-led honor guard performing “Taps” and offering a gun salute. Flowers will be placed on the graves of veterans buried there.

Continuing on, veterans, citizens and Allied Orders will process to Maple Grove Cemetery and Elisha Williams cemetery, where similar ceremonies will be held.

At 4 p.m., a grand military parade will assemble to march down Main Street to Lafayette Park to lay wreaths at veteran monuments.

The program will include the recitation of the Gettysburg Address and Logan’s Orders by students from Waterloo High School, speeches by honored dignitaries, the playing of the National Anthem by the high school band, Salute to the Dead gun volleys by the veteran led honor guard and the playing of Taps.

To find specific dates, times and locations of events, visit

Waterloo is located between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, accessible by the New York State Thruway (Route 90) Exit 41. U.S. Routes 5 & 20 and 96 intersect in the center of the village.

story by Doris Wolf

photos by Darlene Duprey

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