Monday, May 25, 2009

An Iowa Memorial Day, 1895

The Rev. George E. Mitchell presided at the Memorial Day observance in Davis City, Iowa, in 1895.

More than thirty years after the guns fell silent at Appamottox, memories of the Civil War remained fresh in the market towns and county seats of the rural Midwest.

In late May, 1895, the residents of Davis City, Iowa, prepared to honor the veterans of that conflict and remember the sacrifices of those who gave their lives to preserve the Union. The solemnity of the occasion trumped the partisan and sectarian differences that otherwise divided the Decatur County community.

Those differences were significant. With a population of 600, Davis City featured two newspapers (!) -- the Republican Davis City Rustler and the stoutly Populist Davis City Advance. Methodists and Reformed Latter-Day Saints filled the local churches.

The Advance made no secret in other columns of its contempt for President Grover Cleveland (calling him "Old Tub-of-Fat" in one memorable quip). It showed no less disdain for Republicans. As Memorial Day approached, however, partisan sniping ceased. The Advance reported that local residents formed committees responsible for music, the decoration of graves, and the arrangement of children in a procession to the local cemetery. A ritual Grand Army of the Republic service for the decoration of soldiers' graves was planned, followed by a program of music, prayer and reminiscence at the local Latter-Day Saints church.

One of the leading figures in the day's ceremonies was my great-great grandfather, the Rev. George E. Mitchell. As a 19-year-old in 1861, Mitchell enlisted in an Illinois infantry regiment and marched across Missouri to northwest Arkansas. There, in early 1862, he fought in the battle of Pea Ridge, an engagement that halted the Confederate advance into Missouri and kept the border state in the Union.

Mitchell paid a painful price for his service, however. Wounded in battle when a musket ball shot through his foot and exited at the heel, he was hospitalized and eventually discharged. He brought the family to southern Iowa in 1872, and by the middle of the 1890s the Mitchells were well established in Decatur and neighboring Clarke counties.

My ancestor took enormous pride in his war-time record. He was active in the Grand Army of the Republic and local Republican politics. In many ways, and in other contexts, Mitchell was just the sort of figure who might have been expected to drive the Populist editors of the Advance to distraction. But his service on this day won nothing but praise.

"The memorial services conducted Sunday afternoon by Rev. Mitchell were highly appreciated," the paper reported on May 30. "About thirty soldiers marched from the G.A. R. hall to the church headed by the stars and stripes to half-mast. Rev. Mitchell is an old soldier who knows how to touch the hearts of the comrades."

Similar scenes unfolded other in many other Northern states on Memorial Day in 1895, but the ceremonies resonated with particular poignancy in Iowa, which sent 70,000 soldiers to fight for the Union. "Of the soldiers and sailors sent to war, few states paid a higher cost in lives than did Iowa," writes Joseph F. Wall in Iowa: A History. The state lost 3,540 in battle, 8,498 to disease, and 515 in prison or due to starvation.

No wonder, then, that Wall concludes that the war for Iowans "was the great determinant of our political structure and in many important ways of our social attitudes for the next 100 years. In these respects, the war was as important to Iowa as it was to Mississippi or Alabama."

Beginning with John Fremont in 1856, the Hawkeye State voted so regularly for Republican presidential candidates that the quip was that "Iowa will go Democrat when Hell goes Methodist." Not until 1912 would Iowa leave the Republican fold, when Woodrow Wilson carried the state. In 1895 the joke remained not only funny but accurate.

One year later, Davis City and Decatur County would be riven by the dramatic presidential campaign of 1896. Republican William McKinley carried the Hawkeye State but lost Decatur County, where sympathies for the Populists and their third-party antecedants ran strong, by a small margin.

But for one day, partisanship was set aside as the town's residents came together to remember the sacrifices of those who took up arms for the Stars and Stripes.


Davis City Advance, May 23, May 30, 1895.

Wall, Joseph F. Iowa: A History. New York: W. Norton & Co., 1978.

No comments: