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Research Tip: Help Finding Soldiers and Civilians

May 30, 2011

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and was established to honor the soldiers killed in the Civil War. Southern ladies started decorating graves of fallen soldiers  even before the end of the war. Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868, by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Logan’s GAR general order stated “The 30th day of May, 1868, is 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.” Flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery on that first Decoration Day.

The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. After World War I, the holiday was changed to honor Americans who had died serving in any war.

Do you need help finding your Civil War era ancestors? A good book to get you started is Exploring Civil War Wisconsin: A Survival Guide for Researchers, by Brett Barker, Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2003 (UWRF library call number: E 537 .B37 2003).

It is divided into two sections: finding soldiers and finding those who stayed at home. Part I: The Boys in Blue, has chapters on “Finding a Soldier,” “Researching a Regiment,” “Battles and Leaders,” and “The Visual Record” (finding photos). Part II: The War at Home, has chapters on “Finding a Civilian,” “Researching a Community,” and “Government and the People” (government archival records).

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