It was originally called “Decoration Day,” and was designated as a day of especial honor for Union soldiers who had been killed in the Civil War, though at the time it was instituted the official document referred not to the Civil War but to “the late rebellion.”
In the 151 years since the first nationwide Decoration Day, the holiday has changed considerably. It has been broadened first to include those killed in any war, then those who served in any war. It has come to be in some quarters a kind of springtime version of Veterans Day, Nov. 11. In 1968, Congress in its wisdom decided that instead of observing the holiday on May 30, as it had been, it would now take place on the last Monday in May, which is May 30 only from time to time, instead.
The nationalization of the holiday was largely the work of an organization once well known and universally loved. The Grand Army of the Republic was the leading group of Union veterans of the Civil War. (As I write this, I glance over at my great-grandfather’s GAR commission. Titus Cummings was a lieutenant in Company G of the 81st Indiana Infantry until he got shot at Chickamauga on his 33rd birthday. He recovered and mustered out as a captain, which was also his GAR rank according to the commission.)
There are of course no living Civil War veterans, so there’s little use for an organization of them. The GAR was replaced by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and its women’s auxiliary, the Woman’s Relief Corps. Those organizations exist to this very day and in fact are active right here in Athens County. (This makes sense – while Ohio was not the site of any major Civil War battles, it lost more than 2 percent of its population to Civil War battlefield injuries and related diseases.)
And each year, those organizations hold a very special Decoration Day ceremony at a small and picturesque church just across the Washington County border above the Athens County hamlet of Frost.
This year it will take place beginning at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, May 26. It will be, as it has traditionally been, at the Centennial Church, 893 Frost Road, Coolville. (I’ll get to the directions in a bit.)
“I believe that it would be safe to say that the Memorial Service has never missed a year from the institution of the GAR Post, to the Sons’ Camp to the Joint Memorial Service with the Auxiliary to John S. Townsend Camp #108. The Auxiliary was instituted in 1926,” writes Judith Morgan, a longtime member of the auxiliary.
Frost, in eastern Athens County, is a remarkable place all on its own. It once was a trading center, with a railroad stop and shipping from the nearby navigable Hocking. There is still a nice little community there, but it’s much smaller than it was in the years following the Civil War.
In those long ago days and for decades afterwards, the social center of the place was the GAR Hall, where the Civil War veterans met and where dances and dinners were held, and on Saturday nights bluegrass music was played. A few years ago I covered a bluegrass concert to raise money for a new roof for the hall – yes, it’s still standing! – and the John S. Townsend Camp 108 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (the local chapter of the organization) is working to raise money for a permanent historic designation and long-term repair of the building.
And Frost is not alone. For a century or more, the Civil War and the organizations it spawned were a big part of a multitude of small towns (and cities, too), some of which have declined and some of which have all but forgotten how Civil War veterans and their descendants made up the backbone of their communities.
Those involved in the SUVCW and its auxiliary are determined to see that it isn’t forgotten here, but in an era of no attention span and even less thought of our own history, it’s not easy. “The Camp has lost a lot of membership over the last 10 years,” says Carl Denbow, recently elected commander of Camp Townsend 108 of the Sons of Union Veterans, “and my major duty right now is to try to recruit as many new members as I can.” If you’re descended from a Union soldier, you might find it rewarding to look into membership.
Part of the job of the camp and its auxiliary is maintaining its tradition of the somber and lovely Decoration Day ceremony.
It begins with the usual things – a welcome, an invocation, Pledge of Allegiance, singing of the national anthem – but then its special qualities kick in. Hymns are sung by the choir, poetry is read, a special poem, “The Old Blue Coat,” is sung by everyone, and then there is a speaker. This year it’s OU history professor Brian Schoen. This takes place in the beautiful little church, where congregants are separated here and there by the pot-bellied stoves that heat the place in the cold months.
Then everyone moves outdoors, to the graveyard. A musket salute is fired, taps are played, and soldiers’ graves are decorated with flowers and flags.
After that, the group leaves only to reassemble at the Frost GAR Hall for a potluck supper. It’s as it might have been a century ago.
It’s open to the public and well worth attending, a piece of colorful history that will slip away unless people do attend and participate. Once, children would enjoy events like this, and would learn from them, though I do not know if that’s the case anymore.
The address of the church is mentioned above, but that might not be much help in getting there, so here are directions that are known to have worked: Take U.S. Rt. 50 east to Ohio Rt. 144. Head north on 144 a few miles and turn right on Frost Road, which is the first bridge across the Hocking on 144. Make the first left, on Frost Road, then a quick right, onto Frost Hill Road, also known as Township Road 574. Take 574 through Frost and to the end, which is a little more than a mile. Turn left on Township Road 111, and the church will soon be on your left. If you pass the water tower, you’ve gone too far.
It’s a beautiful setting for a beautiful ceremony. It’s the kind of thing that makes your heart swell.
Or should, anyway.
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.