Honoring Civil War soldiers and sailors at the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery in Seattle

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Boy Scout Troop 100 spent Saturday morning at Seattle’s Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery cleaning the moss and dirt off of old headstones and planting flags in preparation for a Memorial Day ceremony.

It is altogether fitting and proper that the Scouts should do this. Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was originally called, started out as a way to honor the soldiers who died during the Civil War. The first such remembrance occurred shortly after the war ended, in 1865 in Charleston, S.C. A group of newly freed slaves decided to honor Union soldiers buried in a mass grave at a place called the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, grounds the Confederate Army had used for a prison camp.

The newly emancipated African Americans dug up the soldiers’ bodies and gave them proper burials. They erected a fence around the cemetery and dedicated it to the unknown men who had fought to defeat the Confederacy and end slavery. On May 1, 1865, 10,000 people gathered at the cemetery and marched around the racetrack. Children sang “John Brown’s Body” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” Afterwards, the graves were decorated with red rose petals. 

I never much associated Seattle with the Civil War. But the 121-year-old cemetery has the graves of more than 400 Civil War veterans and their wives who settled in the Northwest after the war.

The veterans buried in the cemetery include Frank Bois, a quartermaster in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. Bois, a French-Canadian, served aboard the U.S.S. Cincinnati in the Mississippi River during the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863. Even though the ship’s staff had been killed or wounded and the ship was sinking after being struck by enemy shells, Bois stayed aboard, firing the ships’ guns. Bois nailed the flag the stump of ship’s foremast, and the Cincinnati went down with the Stars and Stripes on display.

For his heroics in battle, Bois was awarded the Medal of Honor. After the war, Bois worked as a miner in the Northwest and died in Seattle in 1920.