In 1867, Hon. Samuel Swinton Burdett, member of Congress from Iowa and commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, came to visit relatives at Pruntytown, Taylor County, West Virginia, and look over the Civil War. On being told the bodies of many of the men who died on the field of battle were interred on the field where they fell and many others on the land on upper Maple Avenue, West Grafton, he was struck with the idea of having the Federal Government provide a place of burial at Grafton conveniently located so that all the people come who had relatives die in the war and visit the graveside at chosen times.
On his return to Washington, he introduced a bill in Congress to establish a Nation Cemetery at Grafton, West Virginia, and saw his efforts crowned with success when the War Department authorized the purchase of about four acres of land on what is now Walnut Street, West Grafton, from the heirs of James Alexander Yates. The War Department sent Major R.C. Bates and with him two civil engineers, Edward E. Gilbert and Arthur Brooks, to lay out and plat the grounds. Major Bates contracted with Joseph Warder of Webster for the grading and terracing of the grounds in the summer of 1867 and prepare them for the reception of the bodies of the dead from the Maple Avenue site which numbered 624 known and 627 unknown. James Breedlove a young man engaged in teaming the in county was engaged to convey the dobies to the New National Cemetery as fast as the ground was made available for burial and by Spring of 1868 the work of conveying the bodies moved faster than they could be buried, and the grounds were stacked high with so many red painted rough boxed awaiting burials. Only a very few of the present population remain who recall the sight of these unburied dead.
The wife of General John A. Logan, member od Congress from Illinois passing by a cemetery and seeing a woman dressed in deep mourning lovingly placer a bouquet of flowers above the resting place of some loved one was so impressed at the sight of a loving tribute to the memory of the dead, she conceived the idea to her husband. The idea struck him so forcibly he immediately issued an order to the Grand Army of the Republic in April 1868, that every army post of the Grand Army hold suitable exercises and decorate the graves of their comrades with the flag and flowers on May 30th of each year thereafter. In accordance with this order Captain Daniel Wilson, Major Jacob B. Bristor and Captain Samuel Todd arranged to hold the first Memorial Day exercises in the new National Cemetery in West Grafton on May 30,1868, but an examination of the grounds after a four days rain left the turned over land a sea of yellow mud and the exercises were postponed until Sunday June 14,1868.
On that day a little procession was formed at Compton Corner on Elizabeth (Main) street and headed by a little drum corps composed of Joseph N. Shahan, Thomas Gough and George Hammond and four drummer boys Clinton Albright, Millard Carr, W. Henry Lippencott, and Edward W. Walters the procession moved down the village street to the National Cemetery to hear Jacob B. Bristor deliver the first Memorial Service on that mid-June day 72 years ago and which has been religiously observed in all the years since.
Perhaps the most interesting figure who gave the 29th Memorial address at the cemetery was General B. F. Kelley who spoke to the people Friday, May 30,1890. He, as commander of the Union troops, was first to enter Grafton on Thursday, May 30,1861, and received a tremendous welcome by the citizens who dressed 36 young girls in the national colors which representing a state in the Union and who entertained the soldiers with a very clever flag drill and singing patriotic songs. General Kelley recalling that welcome of 29 years before asked if any of the ladies who were young girls at that time who welcomed him, and his troops so grandly were among his audience and would they please stand. Five arose who were Mrs. Columbus Brown, Mrs. Charles H. Brendel, Mrs. Henry C. Chaney, Mrs. Henrietta Gigley and Mrs. Rebecca Zumbro, each lady wearing the little red, white and blue apron that was part of the costume each had worn on that histories May 30, 1861. Hobbling to the front of the speakers stand on his crutches he beckoned the five ladies to come to the stand and with streaming eyes he took each lady in his arms and hugged and kissed her to the great delight of the great throng, but somewhat embarrassing to the ladies. It was and unusual diversion from the regular Memorial Day program and the only incident of the kind to happen in any Memorial service held in the Nation Cemetery.
In the 79 years since its establishment, only four Grafton men have given the Memorial address, Congressman Richard Blue of Kansas who taught school in Grafton in the 60s and 70s and later moved to Kansas was elected to congress from his district in the state of his adoption and came back to make the address on May 30,1885. Hon. John W. Mason in 1903 who spoke at the unveiling of the monument erected in memory of T. Bailey Brown, Hon. Judge John H. Holt on May 30, 1910, and Judge Ira E. Robinson on May 30,1916. Practically all of the governors of West Virginia and many of the senators and members of Congress of the state as well as many from other states in the Union have been speakers on this occasion, As far as known only one minister, Dr. A.B. Riker, of Mount Union College, Ohio who gave the Memorial address May 30, 1902.
In 1876 the Federal Government erected the stone wall around the grounds and replaced the little frame superintendent’s house with the present stone cottage. Only one child is interred within the grounds of the National Cemetery, a daughter of parents named Gibson who was buried October 3, 1868, who the parents were and why the child was buried among the soldiers was never clearly explained. In the later years as the veterans of the Civil War were taken by death many expressed a wish to have their wives buried alongside of them and this wish was gratified when the War Department granted their petition, and a considerable number of women have been buried beside their husbands in the sacred city of the dead.
One in particular is mentionable, Mrs. Maria Leads who in 1896 realized that unless something was done to keep alive the beautiful Memorial Day exercises as the gast diminishing ranks of the veterans were depleted with the passing of the years. This patriotic woman took it upon herself to enlist the children of the town schools and have them placed in line of march and preserve this custom of holding Memorial Day serviced, and to that end sought the board of education of the public and the preceptress of the Catholic School and succeeded in having the school children take part in the day’s exercises. And it is regrettable that in all the years since her passing in 1925 she has never been mentioned for her interest in preserving this day’s customary exercises.