Memorial Day a century ago
By JIM ZBICK
Honoring our war veterans has been a hallowed tradition since Memorial Day was officially proclaimed in 1868 by Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.
By 1890, it was recognized by all of the northern states but southern states refused to acknowledge the day until after World War I when the holiday changed from honoring the Civil War soldiers to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war.
Today, an estimated 1,800 war veterans die each day, with the majority of those - about 1,000 - having served during World War II. In 1910, the majority of America's veterans were from the Civil War and they were dying at the rate of about 120 per day or nearly 44,000 a year.
"Forty-five years have passed since the last battle of that (Civil) war was fought," a Tamaqua Courier writer noted in his Memorial Day editorial a century ago. "Not many now living could have done any effective service in that great conflict who is not rapidly approaching the allotted period of human life."
John C. Reichelderfer was one example of the kind of "good old soldier" who left his home in the coal regions to fight in the Civil War. Born in Tamaqua in 1846, John enlisted in the famous 48th Pa. Regiment as a teenager and, despite his tender age, served with distinction.
After the war he worked as a brakeman for the Reading Railroad and remained with that company for the rest of his life. He also raised seven children.
John was 64 years old and working as a conductor on a freight train when he was struck by an engine in December 1909. Taken to Ashland Hospital for a supposed stomach infection shortly after the accident, it was found that John had cancer and that nothing could be done for him. His health quickly deteriorated and he died only three months after his accident.
"Taps sounded for a good old soldier," a Courier writer stated. "The veteran of the Civil War made his last charge Saturday night."
Two months later, Tamaqua's Doubleday Post No. 189 of the G.A.R. was preparing for its annual Memorial Day observance. This special day for veterans included a special Sunday evening service at the Primitive Methodist Church and a big parade on Monday. Participants formed in front of the G.A.R. Hall on East Broad Street.
In its Memorial Day editorial, the Tamaqua Courier remembered the white-haired veterans of the Union Army, who were then approaching their twilight years.
One writer explained how the Northern Army evolved into an elite fighting unit.
"(Ulysses S.) Grant went into the field with an army taken from all walks of civil life," he said. "It was made up of merchants, of professional men, of clerks, of mechanics, of farmers and of ordinary laborers. But every man, in that heterogeneous army had the fighting blood of a fighting race in him. The dash, the bravery and the sagacity was there, but the men did not fight as individuals.
"Grant's organization worked almost perfectly because the individual components of that army were actuated by the dominant spirit, and that spirit was one of bravery and of tact."
He then described how that same spirit inspired people on the American homefront.
"When the nation awoke to the fact that it was necessary for it to go into the fighting business, there was no helter-skelter movement but a careful and well-directed movement toward the forming of a war orgnanization," he said.
That kind of organization was necessary to overcome a well-prepared foe.
"Lee took the field with a splendid army," he said. "The forces of the North knew that it would take time and the sacrificing of thousands of lives and millions of dollars to bring about the surrender of that army."
He said it took four years of hard fighting against the gray lines (Southern Army) and there were times when there was doubt as to the outcome.
"In such moments the North came forward with a splendid courage," he said. "The father followed the son into the ranks and sometimes the two fell fighting side by side."
That conflict, he said, helped forge a stronger nation.
"We have advanced greatly in industry, in science, in commerce and in art," he said, "yet we will not say that we could put a better army in the field than we did when the fate of the Union hung in the balance. It would be nothing short of arrogance for us to say that the fighting men of today are better in any way than were the fighting men of half a century ago."
He then honored all the old soldiers who fought to defend the Union cause.
"The men who fought and died fighting rest in heroes' graves," he said. "The men who came home were crowned with honor and glory and the men who went out to fight but were not given the chance wrote their names among the honored, for they were tried and stood the test of courage when they took their places in the ranks."