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Way Back When: The History of Memorial Day

By Mary Fox


In 1866, the chief organization of Civil War veteran’s, The Grand Army of the Republic, (GAR) was founded, but people wanted to put painful memories aside and concentrate on restoring their old lives. A 10-year period of “hibernation” resulted.


Around 1880, a “revival” of interest in the war began. During the revival, the Regimental Histories were being published and articles in magazines about the Civil War became popular. Veterans were writing their memoirs and visiting battlefields. The GAR grew to almost half a million members, and more than 20 GAR posts were founded just in Cattaraugus County.


The Ellicottville Samuel C. Noyes Post, No 232 of the GAR was organized in October 1881 with about 15 charter members. Among them were eight veteran Hardtacks (veterans of the 154th Regiment from Cattaraugus County). They included Thomas Aldrich, Alexander Bird and Byron A. Johnston from Ellicottville who formed a triumvirate of leadership in post and regimental affairs. Most prominent of all was Aldrich, who had been wounded three times at Chancellorsville, captured at Rocky Face Ridge, and imprisoned at Andersonville and elsewhere.  Bird had risen from corporal in Company G to first lieutenant of Company F during the war, and was injured at Rocky Face along the way.  Johnston, a veteran of the 37th New York, had entered the 154th as first sergeant of Company A and been mustered out as captain of Company F. These three men would continue to play prominent roles in civilian life.


The most important rite performed by the GAR was arranging and overseeing an annual observance of Memorial Day ( Decoration Day, Remembrance Day ) honoring those who served in the Civil War. The GAR was instrumental in erecting soldier’s monuments throughout the county. The first monument in Cattaraugus County was erected in Sunset Cemetery in 1883 with 500 veterans attending the ceremony. This monument was destroyed in the mid-1900s.

The records of Post 232 were destroyed in the fire of the town hall in 1969, and due to the negligence of an Ellicottville lawyer the Regimental History of the 154th was also destroyed in a fire in 1917.


The history of the 154 Regiment of Cattaraugus County is being restored by Dale Dunkelman (no relation to the Ellicottville Dunkleman) who has written many books on the history of the 154 Regiment.


Since the GAR was replaced by the American Legion in 1924, the practice of decorating the graves of veterans of all wars has continued. Every Memorial Day, the Ellicottville American Legion Post 659 meets at 10 a.m. at the old Ellicottville Fire Hall on Mill Street and marches to the Town Hall for an 11 a.m. service of remembrance. Crowds have dwindled from the hundreds who marched in the past.


I hope you will give an hour this Memorial Day to stand with others, give thanks and show your respect for the sacrifice of the hours of their lives our veterans have given to you.

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