May 28 – Julia Pierpont Day

Posted on May 28, 2016

In an earlier post, I wrote about a group of formerly-enslaved people who cared enough to honor Union soldiers' ultimate sacrifice that they took it upon themselves to endure a horrible of the many post-Civil War events that led to the modern-day Memorial Day in the United States. 

Here is another Memorial Day precursor:

Julia Pierpont was the wife of the Governor of Restored Virginia (which became West Virginia) – and Francis Pierpont became the Provisional Governor of all of Virginia right after the Civil War. The Pierponts had supported Abraham Lincoln and the Union Army throughout the war, and now they lived in what had been “enemy territory” – in Richmond, Virginia.

And that had to be uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that some ex-Confederates burned the Pierpont's library!

Governor Pierpont followed a policy of forgiveness to all who had served in the Confederate government or military – none of that “enemy” stuff for him! And that made many Unionists upset. With people on both "sides" against them, things must have felt really awkward in that place and time!

Every year re-enactors portray
Pierpont's Decoration Day.
In the middle of all that awkwardness, in May of 1866, Julia Pierpont noticed that the graves of Union soldiers looked run down and neglected. One of Pierpont's friends was a teacher from New York who was working in Richmond teaching at a new school for African American children. Pierpont talked this teacher, Miss Woolsey, into helping her decorate the Union soldiers' graves. They gathered together the Pierpont children, Miss Woolsey's students, and as many friends as would come, and they tidied the graves and then decorated them with flowers.

This good deed was met with both applause and criticism. I think it was really brave for Pierpont to do this!

Julia Pierpont's “Decoration Day” is said to have inspired another, larger Decoration Day, held a few weeks later; this one was focused on decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers. As news of the Decoration Days spread, more and more similar events followed.

These days, of course, we call Decoration Day “Memorial Day,” and it is about honoring those who served and died in any of the U.S. armed forces, at any time (not just during the Civli War). We always celebrate Memorial Day on the last Monday of May, and Julia Pierpont Day is celebrated the Saturday before Memorial Day, by getting veterans' graves ready for Memorial Day.

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