The Civil War Era

Memorial Day Postcard

Memorial Day Postcard

By the mid-19th century, religion played a lesser role in people’s lives, and the old funerary practices had lost their meaning. Professionalization of death removed the family from close contact with the deceased; a phenomenon that some viewed as making money off the misfortune of others. People no longer knew what practices were appropriate, and they found themselves looking to magazines and newspapers for advice on the subject. While focus had shifted to the emotion of the survivors, some decried a general moral decay in the Union as a whole with its focus on the self, cheaper living, and a concern more for property and money than for human life.

“[I] feel it selfish to wrap myself in my own individual sorrow when so many hearts are desolate.”

                                                                                                            Margaret Peissner

Though change was not instigated by the war, it exhibited it on a large scale. Margaret Peissner’s husband, Elisa, was killed during the battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. In a letter to Margaret, surgeon James Hewitt described Elisa as dying “gallantly and nobly … of honorable wounds, in front.” It is clear from a letter that this was not the case. The surgeon spared the grieving widow the information that Elisa’s death was not only bloody and painful, but also the treatment his body received from the enemy was less than honorable. 

The Civil War came at a time when the need to memorialize the dead had taken root. Established in 1868, Decoration Day brought the living back to the cemetery each year to place wreaths and other items of remembrance at the headstones of those who had died in the war. The new holiday grew in popularity, and by 1871 Schenectady’s common council organized numerous activities including speeches at Vale and a parade. After World War One, the celebrations included all war dead and eventually became Memorial Day.

 “There is a general feeling of sorrow and gloom that words utterly fail to express.”

The shock of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln came days after the jubilation at the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattex, Virginia. After four years of war, collective mourning brought people of all political affiliations and sympathies together. On April 19, 1865, Schenectady held a funeral procession and a series of ceremonies for the President. Businesses closed, homes were draped in black and the newspapers were not even published as the procession made its way from church to church. Schenectadians went to pay their last respects to the man himself when his funeral train stopped in Albany on the 25th on its way to Illinois.

Yet solidarity was not complete. In a sermon, the Rev. Denis Wortman of the First Dutch Reformed church compared Lincoln’s assassination to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and called for retribution against the Confederate traitors. This elicited a response from the Democratic Reflector, which accused Wortman of “heated zeal” and “diabolical” spirit. In turn the Evening Star and Times rebuked the Reflector and published a couple of articles in which it related the fate of those who failed to mourn for the president.

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