The story of Memorial Day begins in the summer of 1865, when a prominent local druggist, Henry C. Welles, mentioned to some of his friends at a social gathering that while praising the living veterans of the Civil War it would be well to remember the patriotic dead by placing flowers on their graves. Nothing resulted from this suggestion until he advanced the idea again the following spring to General John B. Murray. Murray, a civil war hero and intensely patriotic, supported the idea wholeheartedly and marshalled veterans’ support. Plans were developed for a more complete celebration by a local citizens’ committee headed by Welles and Murray.
On May 5, 1866, the Village was decorated with flags at half mast, draped with evergreens and mourning black. Veterans, civic societies and residents, led by General Murray, marched to the strains of martial music to the three village cemeteries. There impressive ceremonies were held and soldiers’ graves decorated. One year later, on May 5, 1867, the ceremonies were repeated. In 1868, Waterloo joined with other communities in holding their observance on May 30th, in accordance with General Logan’s orders. It has been held annually ever since.
Waterloo held the first formal, village wide, annual observance of a day dedicated to honoring the war dead. On March 7, 1966, the State of New York recognized Waterloo by a proclamation signed by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller. This was followed by recognition from Congress of the United States when the House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously passed House Concurrent Resolution 587 on May 17th and May 19th, 1966 respectively. This reads in part as follows: “Resolved that the Congress of the United States, in recognition of the patriotic tradition set in motion one hundred years ago in the Village of Waterloo, NY, does hereby officially recognize Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day…”
Henry C. Welles
Henry Carter Welles was born in Glastonbury, CT on May 13, 1821. His mother brought the family to live with relatives in Waterloo, Seneca County, NY sometime after 1825. Little else is known about his early life. Henry married in the 1850’s and the couple had three children, all of whom died in chidhood. He became a prominent druggist in Waterloo and was elected to village offices as well as being a member of church and fraternal groups. While Henry was well known at the time, he would probably be forgotten today by all but descendants except for a comment that he made to townspeople in the summer of 1865. At a social gathering, Henry suggested that a day should be set aside to honor the dead of the Civil War. The next year, he repeated his suggestion to General John B. Murray. The two men and a group formed of local citizens gained the support of the village, and on May 5, 1866, the first complete observance of Memorial Day took place in Waterloo, NY. While it was widely known at the time that Henry Welles was largely responsible for the first Memorial Day, the more prominent General Murray overshadowed him in gaining recognition outside the village. The Centennial Committee, formed in Waterloo for the 100th observance in 1966, found the newspapers of the time gave Henry credit for suggesting the first Memorial Day. Henry C. Welles died in July, 1868, but had lived long enough to see Memorial Day nationally proclaimed by General John Logan of the G.A.R. His obituary in the Geneva Times, one of few death notices in the papers in this time period, was statement of his importance in the community.
General John B. Murray
John Boyce Murray was born in Arlington, Vermont on August 13, 1822. His parents brought him to Scipio, Cayuga County, NY in 1831. In his early years, he studied law and taught in a rural shool in Seneca County. Five years after his marriage to Angelina Savage, he moved with his wife and two children to Seneca Falls, Seneca County, NY. Before the Civil War, he became a successful lawyer and politician. In 1862, he entered the war as a captain and commanded the 148th Regiment of New York State Volunteers. When he returned home in 1866, he was a brigadier general. He was elected clerk of Seneca County and moved to Waterloo to assume office. While residing in Waterloo, he became the power and influence behind Waterloo’s first Memorial Day celebration. The idea was suggested by Henry C. Welles, a prominent druggist. Together they made Memorial Day a reality. In 1869, General Murray moved back to Seneca Falls. He was in great demand all over the state as a speaker. On Oct. 7, 1884, after making a speech at the Harrison Chamberlain residence in Seneca Falls, he was seriously stricken and died the next day. General Murray was described as a fiery orator, an active politician, and a natural born leader.
West Main Street in Waterloo 1866
Memorial Day Centential Emblem