As the nation reflects on the service of the men and women in the U.S. Armed Forces on Memorial Day, residents of West Virginia take part in a tradition extending back to the years immediately following the American Civil War. West Virginia's state and national leaders annually join with veterans and civilians in the remembrance of Memorial Day at Grafton National Cemetery. Recently, Byrd Center intern Zachary Garver uncovered speeches given by Senator Robert C. Byrd and Congressman Harley O. Staggers, Sr. at these annual ceremonies at West Virginia's oldest national military cemetery.
Grafton National Cemetery was established in 1867-1868 as a burial site for Civil War soldiers. Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster General of the Union Army and one of the principal architects of Arlington National Cemetery contributed to the designs for the new cemetery, including its terraced landscape and original superintendent's lodge. The cemetery was dedicated on June 14, 1868 by West Virginia's first Governor, Arthur Boreman. In its first years of operation, over 1,200 Union soldiers were reinterred from various parts of the state to the national cemetery in Grafton. In 1903, Private Thornesberry Bailey Brown, believed to be the first Union soldier killed in the Civil War, was reinterred at Grafton National Cemetery where a special monument was dedicated to his memory.
In addition to the military history of Grafton National Cemetery, the site is also significant for hosting one of the oldest continuous Memorial Day commemorations in the United States. Dating back to the earliest years of the cemetery's existence, a parade from downtown Grafton to the cemetery takes place on each Memorial Day, culminating in a public ceremony which has featured all but one of the state's governors and many of its congressional representatives.
Congressman Harley O. Staggers, Sr. gave an address at the 1969 Memorial Day Celebration in Grafton in the midst of the Vietnam War. Himself a veteran, having served in the Navy during World War II, Congressman Staggers directed his support to the men and women in the Armed Forces and spoke strongly against the anti-draft and anti-Vietnam protests and riots which had gripped the nation since the escalation of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia in 1965.
Six years after Congressman Staggers' address, Senator Robert C. Byrd spoke to the Memorial Day Commemoration at Grafton. In his statements lauding the sacrifices of members of the U.S. Armed Services, Senator Byrd also referenced the conflict in Vietnam, which had ended almost a month before with the fall of Saigon and the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy. These speeches given by Congressman Staggers and Senator Byrd not only convey eloquent orations on the sacrifice of men and women in the Armed Services, but also reveal a unique historical context in one of the most difficult eras in U.S. military history.
On May 30, 2016, residents of Grafton and hundreds of visitors participated in the 149th Memorial Day Parade and Commemoration, culminating at the historic Grafton National Cemetery. The celebration continues as one of the nation's oldest Memorial Day commemorations, honoring the thousands of West Virginians who have served in defense of their country.