On the first Memorial Day in Maine, children in Lewiston and Auburn waved small American flags as they paraded to cemeteries to honor the fallen heroes of the Grand Army of the Republic who returned home in coffins from the Civil War or lay in faraway graves.

A glorious May morning in 1870 offered “promise and brightness” to what would prove a long day for thousands of reverent residents taking the new opportunity to remember those who perished trying to preserve their country.

Frank Dingley, the respected editor of the Lewiston Evening Journal, watched that first Memorial Day unfold and sought, with more florid prose than usual, to capture both local events and the emotions they stirred.

“Never did a Northern spring render more touching tribute. The flowers were never more abundant, as the season was never earlier,” he wrote. “Never did the cemeteries where the fallen braves lie buried look more like the resting place of immortals.”

“The birds sang their songs among the marbles as joyously as if the city of the dead were the Heavenly Jerusalem,” Dingley wrote.

“The mild breezes swept a low, sad plaint through the evergreen boughs, while a meditative monotone rustled in the elms and oaks and maples, like the sadness of harps,” Dingley wrote. “Everything in Nature seemed attuned to the spirit of Soldiers’ Memorial Day.”


Though not an official holiday, most of the stores on Lisbon Street closed on May 30 for the occasion. Flags hung at half-staff on many buildings throughout the area.

People decorated carriages and houses “with the floral fragrance and trophies” gathered from sunny locales, the paper reported, all done in “the common sympathy which embraces this day of royal and triumphant sorrow.”

Dingley wrote that children and adults had spent a couple of days collecting flowers and then distributing them “on the green mounds which mark the resting places of the heroic soldiers of Lewiston and Auburn who died for fatherland.”

“No more genuine touch of sentiment, no more reverent tribute of love could be rendered than this of the Grand Army of the Republic to the dead who fell in their ranks,” the Journal said.

Dingley saw widows and children gathered beside the graves of lost husbands and missing fathers. He witnessed little knots of veterans surrounding tombstones and telling tales of a departed comrade.

On Memorial Day, people gathered for a procession from Haymarket Square on Main Street to Lisbon Street and then along Pine Street to City Park, where Franklin Simmons’ statue of a Civil War soldier stood, as it still does.


The procession included veterans with battle flags, children with bouquets of flowers, choirs riding on a huge carriage named for Gov. Joshua Chamberlain and “young ladies from the high school” collected in a similar carriage named for President Ulysses Grant, which had been used as a sled several months earlier to haul guests at Maine’s first Fat Men’s Convention.

Dingley said the scene at the park “was very animated,” with several thousand people and hundreds of carriages.

He noted “the great flag on the park staff at half-mast, waving over the crowd” and “wreaths and festoons of flowers over the bronze veteran” created by Simmons and mounted on a pedestal that also remains in place.

A band played dirges, choirs sang hymns “and numberless less noteworthy features rendered the scene one fitly commemorative of the fervency of love in which the fallen braves are held by a patriotic people,” the paper said.

Here and there, Dingley said, he saw veterans with empty sleeves or on crutches, living symbols of the horrors of the war that had ended little more than five years earlier.

The Rev. D.C. Haynes of the Bates Street Baptist Church gave an eloquent, off-the-cuff speech that Dingley termed “appropriate to the occasion.”


At its conclusion, the gathered crowd marched on to Riverside Cemetery, where at least 28 veterans of the war had been laid to rest.

At the cemetery, Dingley said soldiers’ graves had been consecrated with “endless varieties of blossoms — tulips, which seem to have taken the sun’s shine and warmth into their many-colored petals; narcissus, glistening in earth robes and distilling aromatic dreams; carnations wide awake, like the pungency of a bugle note; oleanders, pouring out hymns of mystical devotion and glowing with the ecstasy and fervor of the tropics.”

He listed more flowers, too, and mentioned that the air itself had a rich perfume from all the flowers strewn among marble headstones.

The Journal ended the story with a poem. Its last stanzas were:

Scatter the flowers we bear around

The white tents of the dead;


The night comes down, the day is done

The old Flag overhead

Hangs silently and wearily;

The rain falls on the sod;

Our loved ones sleep: how well they died

For Freedom and for God!

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