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The origins of Memorial Day in Minneapolis and the G.A.R. Lot at Layman’s Cemetery

CAROLINE FALKNER, CIRCA 1938 COURTESY OF THE HENNEPIN HISTORY MUSEUM
The Grand Army of the Republic Lot inside the Lake Street Gates circa 1938.

Martin L. Nicks, the first burial in the G.A.R. Lot

May 28, 2018, will be the 150th anniversary of the first Memorial Day or as it was originally called Decoration Day. It was on May 5, 1868, that General John A. Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order No. 11, which called for “The 30th of May, 1868, [to be] designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion… with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year…” The late date of the order made any organized celebration in Minneapolis unlikely, and although there were no documented celebrations, it’s still quite possible that the local members of the G.A.R. made a visit to the city cemetery (Layman’s cemetery) and paid their respects to their fallen comrades. By the following year, 1869, it was quite a different story. The Minneapolis Tribune reported; “A large concourse of our citizens met at the cemetery and at 3½ pm formed in procession and proceeded to the graves of our soldiers… The Rev. F. A. Conwell, read a few appropriate verses from the Scriptures [and] Capt. J.C. Whitney followed with some well-timed remarks upon the occasion…” The paper also listed the names of the 20 known veterans buried there.

As May 30, 1870 approached, the city of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Post 3 of the G.A.R. were well prepared to outdo the previous year’s celebration. As reported in the Minneapolis Tribune; “The head of the column started from the corner of Minnetonka Street [First Avenue] and Washington Avenue, following the splendid band of the Twentieth Infantry [from] Fort Snelling… The procession, which was more than two miles long marched up Helen Street [Second Avenue], to Seventh, down Seventh, leaving it for the old cemetery road.” A speaker’s platform had been erected just outside the cemetery entrance and was soon surrounded by the many hundreds of people and carriages making the scene “a magnificent appearance.” As the ceremony began, the Fort Band played a “beautiful andante followed by a dirge from the Turners band”. General orders from the G.A.R. were read, prayers were given, and The Harmonia Singing Society sang, after which, Capt. J.C. Whitney Addressed the crowd. The count of known veterans in the cemetery was now at 27.

A Resolution.

TIMOTHY MCCALL
The tombstone of Martin Luther Nicks is a comparison as it usually looks (left) and how it looks when the sun light hits it at the correct angle (right).

During the ceremony of decoration of graves, the G.A.R. found the grave of Martin [L.] Nicks in an obscure place in the cemetery, among the paupers, of whom, probably, he had been one, buried by the county. At the suggestion of Capt. Whitney, H.G. Hicks moved that the remains be removed to a more appropriate spot, which being put in due form by Post commander E.M. Marshall, was unanimously carried.

In 1871, it was announced that the newly named, George N. Morgan, Post No.3 of the Grand Army of the Republic, had followed through on their resolution from the previous year. Having purchased a Lot just inside the gates on Lake Street, the remains of Martin L. Nicks had been moved from the Potters Field to the new Grand Army of the Republic Lot at Layman’s Cemetery.

But who was Martin L. Nicks? That “Tale” will be in next month’s Tales from Pioneer and Soldier’s Memorial Cemetery column.

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