Madison began celebrating Memorial Day in 1868. All businesses in town shut down, and hundreds of citizens marched in a body to Forest Hill Cemetery for a ceremony honoring the dead.
In 1872, the speaker of the day was Wisconsin Governor Cadwallader C. Washburn, a Union general who had led troops in the fight against Vicksburg. Washburn began his speech by rhetorically asking why Memorial Day was worth celebrating. He then answered his own question.
“I would not have these ceremonies perpetuated for the purpose of keeping alive resentments or dividing a people that ought to be united, but only to remind us of the priceless value of our glorious union, and our obligations to those who sacrificed their lives to uphold and maintain it and to the near and dear ones they have left behind.
Here, almost side by side, and in one silent bed, are laid not only those who sacrificed their lives to preserve - but also those to destroy our fair fabric of governance.
Misguided as the last were, you wage no war with lifeless clay and your resentments stop with the grave. Let us then after we shall have decked the graves of our brave defenders, scattering pansies, forget-me-nots and the ‘rosemary of remembrance,’ not forget the lowly bed of those who sleep so far away from their once happy and sunny homes.”
Orphans from the Soldiers Orphans Home then sang. A poem by Ella Wheeler, a poetess soon to be known across the nation, was read. Then the orphans strewed flowers on the Union graves.
The Madison Democrat reported what happened next.
“After the graves of the Union soldiers had been handsomely and befittingly decorated, Governor Washburn stepped to the front, with more courage than has ever been shown on these occasions, asking volunteers to go with him to scatter flowers over the graves of the rebel dead who reposed nearby. No one can go beyond us in renouncing the cause of secession in all its forms, but we say Governor Washburn’s conduct yesterday was that of a high-minded, magnanimous soldier – of one who dared to sustain his professions by his public acts – and show charity for the erring and misguided ‘boys in gray,’ who like our own soldiers were brave beyond parallel, though sadly in the wrong. So little an act as this will do more to wipe out the asperities of the war than we can estimate. We can say it with credit to the old soldiers present that the Governor was not without a following in his work of merciful charity. All the officers of the day, chaplains, and veterans of a hundred battlefields joined in strewing the graves of the rebel dead.”