This article was originally posted on May 28, 2011:Memorial Day 1891 in Cortlandt and Peekskill, like many public observances during that period of American history, featured a schedule of events that spanned most of the day, unlike the abbreviated ceremonies of busier contemporary times.
A highlight of the day was the planting of a tree at the Van Cortlandtville School in honor of Alexander Soper, a Union soldier from the community who was killed at Petersburg, Va., during the Civil War. The tree was one of several eventually planted on the grounds of the Locust Avenue school in honor of soldiers from this area who did not survive the 1861-65 war. Several of the trees, now more than a century old, still tower above the schoolhouse, but the names of those they honor are for the most part a mystery. No markers have been found at the bases of the trees, and continuing research by the schoolhouse-based Van Cortlandtville Historical Society has yet to yield their identities.
The following excerpted description of Memorial Day was found in the June 5, 1891 edition of thePeekskill Messenger five years ago by Frank Goderre, then president of the society.
“Long before eight o’clock the children came to the store of Comrade James H. Haight, bearing beautiful flowers, and his busy emporium was almost hidden beneath the fragrant blossoms. Comrades of the Grand Army [of the Republic] and Sons of Veterans gathered in groups, the old men to talk of the scenes of other days, and the young, to discuss the movements of the present.
“In Military Hall, the noble women of the Women’s Relief Corps, and the Christian Temperance Union, were arranging to receive the old soldiers with cheer and refreshment on their return from the cemetery.
“In the meantime the fire ladies were astir, preparing to march with the Peekskill Military Academy cadets. The streets were rapidly filling up with people from the town and vicinity, drawn thither by the desire to witness the impressive ceremonies of the day.
“At nine o’clock Vosburgh Post, No. 95, G.A.R., under Geo. L. Hughson, commander, and Delancy Cole Camp, Sons of Veterans, George Griffen, commander, with the uniformed veterans formed at Post Headquarters, preceded by Shine’s fife and drum corps. A short march was made before proceeding to the cemetery. At Hillside [now North Division Street] and Constant Avenues transportation was taken to the cemetery, where addresses by the Rev. W.L. Pattison, Postmaster Smith and Counselor Eugene B. Travis were made.
“At the cemetery the Posts took position in line when, after the exercises of the day according to the G.A.R. ritual were observed, the Rev. W.L. Pattison, delivered a very eloquent address in which he paid a fitting tribute to the heroes of the war. Some of its passages were thrillingly pathetic, and the old soldiers’ hearts’ were [stirred] by his power. After the address the ceremony of decorating the graves was gone through with. The command then proceeded to the school grounds, where a tree was planted to the memory of Veteran Soper, and standing before it past Commander John Smith Jr., made the following address:
“ ‘Friends, Comrades and Sons of Veterans – We are met to-day to plant a tree, not in remembrance of Alexander the Great, but in honor of Alexander Soper, the good, true and brave soldier of Co. A, 6th New York Heavy Artillery. We, his old comrades, take a solemn pleasure in thus assembling.
“‘Alexander Soper was born in this immediate vicinity. In these fields his hands wrought and labored, but when the call came “To Arms” Alexander Soper was one of the first to enlist. He joined the company of which I was a member. I know of no reason why he was named Alexander, but probably his father was an admirer of heroes, and undoubtedly so named his boy because of that fact. Young Soper never dreamed of becoming a hero, but he was always brave, patriotic and loyal."
"When we advanced into the wilderness it was Alexander Soper who stood shoulder to shoulder with those boys, that now men, are here today. There was a question as to who should stand up under the enemy’s fire, and through the trying ordeal, he stood firm, nobly doing his duty. At Bethesda Church he was in the front rank, and when we came off victorious, none felt prouder than he. At Spotsylvania none rendered better service."
"In an attack on Petersburg we moved forward under a galling fire, until the brow of the hill was taken. Here while waiting orders after the first charge, the enemy opened fire. Sergeant Lent went down, then Conklin and Henry were wounded, and finally the fatal bullet struck Alexander Soper in the shoulder, and as he fell over his last words were, “Oh, my poor wife and children.” No thought for himself, but of those dearer to him than life, his beloved wife and children. Men have died for honor and glory, but a plain unassuming citizen like him, who earned his living by his daily toil, left home, family and friends behind him, and gave himself, his life, his all for the preservation of his country, and my friends, he is a fair representative of the men who were his comrades, and of the survivors that are with us to-day."
"We have not the wealth to build monuments of granite to his memory, so we plant this tree in remembrance of our comrade and friend, in honor of Alexander Soper, who lies in an unknown grave, upon which we are now unable to strew or plant a flower. This is why we to-day plant this tree and about it spread these lovely and fragrant flowers – God’s jewels, in honor of our heroic dead.’”
Eugene B. Travis, school trustee, paid tribute to the veterans and the man they honored. The veterans then went to Military Hall for dinner, after which many traveled to Iona Island, where Columbian Hose Co. was giving a grand picnic. At two o’clock a detachment from Vosburgh Post went to Montrose and Verplanck, “where flowers were strewn on the graves of the gallant dead there buried,” the Messengerreported.