Early Memorial Day observances, soon after the devastation of the Civil War, were deeply felt and steadfastly celebrated in Guilderland

A rainy Memorial Day in 1928 found three very elderly Civil War veterans present at ceremonies being held indoors that year at Hamilton Union Presbyterian Church due to the bad weather.

The three men, members of M.H. Barckley Post, No. 198 and the last of what had once been a sizable contingent, had been accompanied by a number of World War I veterans from the Helderberg Post American Legion and joined at the church by members of the public.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, which included a local judge’s patriotic address and music performed by the Clarksville band, American Legion members escorted the three veterans to Prospect Hill Cemetery to decorate the graves of the Civil War dead.

In 1862, while the Civil War was churning out its endless casualties affecting every community in the country, both North and South, the Prospect Hill Cemetery trustees set aside a section to be known as the Soldiers’ Lot where fallen Union soldiers could be interred without cost. Six years later, $650 was spent by the trustees to erect a memorial monument of a stone shaft surmounted by a bronze eagle in the midst of the Soldiers’ Lot.

As an Enterprise article noted in 1898, “A goodly number of those who fell in battle or died in service were brought home and their remains interred here so that today upwards of one hundred veterans are sleeping under its sod.”

Civil War deaths from both sides, the combined result of battle and diseases, especially dysentery and measles, totaled approximately 620,000. Surviving Union veterans, who often returned home suffering from physical or psychological effects of the conflict, began banding together, beginning in 1866, for support and fellowship in a veterans’ organization that became known as the Grand Army of the Republic. In the years that followed, thousands of veterans formed hundreds of GAR posts across the nation.

Chartered by local veterans on Jan. 24, 1881, Altamont’s new post was called the M.H. Barckley Post, No. 198, following GAR tradition of naming a post in honor of a local soldier who had fallen in battle. Lieutenant M.H. Barckley, a Knox resident who had served in the 7th New York Artillery Regiment, was wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864 and died shortly after having his leg amputated. Post members included not only men from Guilderland, but Knox and other nearby towns and at its peak counted 49 members.

In 1868, Major-General John A. Logan, first national commander of the GAR, issued Order No. 11 proclaiming that May 30 should be observed annually as Memorial Day to remember and honor those who met death in the war with the words, “Let us gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of springtime … .”

Because Union regiments were recruited from local areas, many men from the same vicinity would be living and fighting together during the war. Twenty-five men from Guilderland and 14 from Knox served in the 7th with Barckley along with others from nearby towns.

Visiting cemeteries where the war dead were interred was a deeply felt emotional experience for the living because the dead men frequently had been the veterans’ schoolmates, friends, neighbors, or perhaps one of their relatives. Early Memorial Day ceremonies had real meaning for both veterans and community members who also had grieved for these losses as well.

The first Memorial Day service at Prospect Hill Cemetery was held in 1868, the year of Major-General Logan’s proclamation, but details of early observances aren’t available. Once The Enterprise began publication, a record of activities on Memorial Day (or Decoration Day as it was sometimes called) provided accounts of how the day was observed.

In the 1880s, with the newly organized Barckley GAR Post and the formation of community bands, more elaborate ceremonies could be staged. Each year in mid-May, the GAR post inserted an announcement in The Enterprise to solicit donations of flowers to decorate the graves.

Taking 1887 as a typical example of Memorial Day in Guilderland, in early morning a crowd began gathering in front of Sloan’s Hotel in the hamlet of Guilderland, waiting for the veterans to arrive. In the meantime, the GAR veterans had left Altamont with their flowers, stopping along the way at both Fairview and Guilderland cemeteries to decorate Civil War graves there, and then proceeded to Sloan’s.

That year, the Knowersville Band accompanied them, though in the years ahead many different bands played at the event. When they arrived in Guilderland, a parade was organized with a grand marshal in the lead, followed by both the Fullers and Knowersville cornet bands, the veterans from the Barckley Post, and lastly members of the public.

Marching along the Turnpike to the sounds of the bands that “discoursed excellent music,” the parade reached the cemetery where a large crowd had already gathered.

Entering the cemetery, their first stop was the Soldiers’ Lot where the proscribed ritual of reading aloud Major-General Logan’s Order No. 11 and strewing the graves with flowers opened the day’s ceremonies.

Next, the veterans, bands, and the crowd that had marched along the Turnpike moved to another section of the cemetery where dignitaries were seated on a platform and a much larger crowd awaited them to begin the program. Later, the estimate was given that there were 2,000 people present that day.

Once in place, as the combined bands played “America,” the crowd burst into song. Next, accompanied by an organ, a choir sang “We’ll Dress the Graves Today,” followed by a prayer offered by Rev. H.M. Voorhees.

A solo “The Empty Sleeve” was sung by Rev. J.C. Fisher, followed by a lengthy patriotic address given by Rev. T.J. Yost, Altamont’s Lutheran pastor, printed complete in the next week’s Enterprise. The program concluded with Henry Swann, the “conductor” of the exercises, making remarks, the choir singing “Tread Lightly on Their Graves” and finally a benediction was given by Rev. Dr. Belden.

     The program varied little over the next several years, but one addition in 1890 was the presence of the popular local poet Madelene LaGrange who probably brought tears to the eyes of many when she read her sentimental poem “The Tried and True,” which began:

We come today, remembering the loved, the tried and true,

To deck the place where lie in peace the boys who wore the blue;

Our boys who died that we might live in rest and peace today,

Who shouldered arms at war’s alarms and marched to join the fray… .

This ceremony became the pattern followed as long as the Civil War veterans were alive. After a few years, the address would be given by a political figure instead of a minister and the participating bands varied, but ministers always continued to play a part.

Choirs were usually from one of Guilderland’s churches. There were a few years when the Barckley Post went to Knox or stayed in Altamont for village Memorial Day ceremonies and Albany GAR posts participated instead, but most years Barckley Post members were an important feature of the Prospect Hill Memorial Day observances.

Large numbers of people poured into the hamlet of Guilderland and the cemetery itself for this annual event with no indication of what facilities were available for a crowd of that size. The traffic jam created by all those horse-drawn vehicles hauling spectators and the mess left by the horses must have been quite a sight.

An announcement came from the trustees in 1897 indicating a railing on study posts would be running the length of cemetery property along the Turnpike “for the purpose of tying horses.” In the later 1890s, it became possible to shelter your horse in either of the church sheds or in the hotel shed where for a moderate price a man would feed and water your horse.

Rain could interfere as it did in 1892, driving people indoors to Hamilton Union Presbyterian Church. Cemetery trustees took the preventative step of acquiring a tent that would shelter 1,000 people from inclement weather, making it known that spectators should not stay away because of rain or threat of bad weather because they would be kept dry under the big tent.

The GAR’s political power was such that Memorial Day was quickly made a national holiday after its initiation. From the beginning, most people considered it not only a day for solemn remembrance, but also an opportunity for leisure and recreation, something obvious from the columns of The Enterprise.

Traditionally, a baseball game was played in the hamlet of Guilderland on the Iosco team’s ballfield either before or after the ceremonies. An especially popular leisure activity that day for many people was visiting friends or relatives.

Some of the fellows went fishing. For others, taking one of the excursions offered by either the D & H or West Shore railroads or cruising on a Hudson River dayliner to Kingston Point for the day was a delightful way to enjoy the holiday.

One group of people who had little chance to relax were the women and the few men involved in putting on strawberry festivals or serving dinners, all to raise money. The strawberry festivals were held in the hamlet of Guilderland by the ladies of the Methodist and Presbyterians churches and the Templars at Red Men’s Hall. After the turn of the 20th Century, the church ladies began serving lunches or suppers instead of strawberries and ice cream.

The best food event was in Frenchs Hollow where, depending on the year, the Guilderland Center women from either St. Mark’s Lutheran Church or from the Helderberg Reformed Church alternated offering meals with fanciful names and entertainments in the late afternoon and early evening of Memorial Day at the empty old factory building there that had been used many years for community events.

For a modest price, people returning from the cemetery ceremonies could stop on the way home to dine and relax. In 1887, the Lutheran ladies served a supper with the additional attractions of the Knowersville Band’s music and a broom drill performed by a brigade of 12 young ladies in “appropriate” costumes, described the next week as “an interesting feature of the entertainment, each one performing her part admirably.” Seeing that the proceeds of the evening totaled $268, the supper must have been well patronized.

     The Japanese and Pink Tea Party, Orange Tea Party, Chocolate Tea Party, Rainbow Supper, Columbian Entertainment Supper, and New England Supper were samples of Memorial Day events at the old Frenchs Hollow factory sponsored by one or the other of the two churches. Finally, in 1901, the annual supper was to be held at Helderberg Reformed Church parlors in Guilderland Center instead of what had become the very rundown old factory building.

The comment was made, “There is general satisfaction that the Supper has been removed from the dangerous factory in French’s Hollow.”

The ladies of the two churches continued to offer Memorial Day suppers and entertainments for many years.

That time was creeping up on the veterans was indicated when, in 1899, The Enterprise commented “… the ranks of the old ‘vets’ have been materially thinned of late, some seven in this vicinity having answered the roll call and joined their comrades in the spirit world during the last year… .”

With the new century and the aging of the veterans, the annual ceremonies continued, but less attention was paid to the events at Prospect Hill. Whoever wrote the Guilderland column in the paper in the early 1900s never even mentioned the Memorial Day event unless it had to do with the church serving lunch or dinner that day.

The veterans who were able continued to solicit donations of flowers, and traveled to the cemetery as always to decorate the graves, where there would be the traditional band and speaker.

Cemetery officials proudly noted in 1915, “Guilderland gave freely of her boys during the Rebellion, many of whom never came home and for forty-six years in succession appropriate exercises have been held in their memory.”

By 1919, only 10 GAR men were present and now they were taken by automobile to the cemeteries while the Altamont Boy Scouts collected donated flowers and did the actual work of placing them on the graves.

In 1923, when only six veterans took part, the Boy Scouts not only decorated the graves, but did the traditional GAR readings. And finally, 1928’s observance saw the last of the Civil War veterans. The M.H. Barckley Post, No. 198 Altamont disbanded shortly afterward, bringing an end to an era.