“To Embalm Their Memories” – Memorial Day At Jefferson Barracks in 1870


Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery around 1897. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On May 30, 1870, several thousand Civil War veterans and civilians gathered at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery to lay flags at their former comrades’ graves. With over 10,000 graves to decorate, Major General John Pope (commander of the Department of the Missouri) suspended “all business at department headquarters to day; also at the arsenal and at Jefferson Barracks” so all officers and soldiers could participate in the commemorative activities. [1] It was just the second anniversary of the so-called “Memorial – or Decoration – Day,” and each veteran knew the importance of the moment.


General Isaac F. Shepard during the war. Courtesy of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.

One of the most memorable orations of the 1870 Memorial Day commemoration at Jefferson Barracks was the keynote address by Adjutant General of Missouri, Grand Army of the Republic Commander of Missouri, and Union veteran Colonel Isaac F. Shepard. [2] A deeply-rooted Massachusetts native and failed businessman, Shepard went west, quickly joined the Missouri State Militia in June of 1861, and soon became the adjutant of Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon during the 1861 Missouri Campaign. He was wounded at Wilson’s Creek, but recovered quickly enough to earn a promotion to second-in-command of the 19th Missouri Infantry Regiment by the end of the month. Shepard later became commander of the 3rd Missouri Infantry, 51st United States Colored Troops, and the Army of the Tennessee’s African Brigade. After the war, he continued to lead his new-found state. At the time of the 1870 Memorial Day, Shepard was the state’s adjutant general and later served as the U.S. Consul to China. Though, Shepard is largely unknown compared to the likeness of Lee, Grant, and other prominent Civil War generals, his oration on Memorial Day was eloquent, patriotic, and heartfelt. [3]

It is fitting, then, that we make our annual pilgrimage to their graves to recall the teachings of the grand drama, to rehearse their deeds and their virtues, and to embalm their memories with all the tender rites of affection and of honor. Some one has written what when good men die tears gush forth, which their beneficent deeds kept from flowing while they lived. The tribute of tears is thus due theses lost ones; for their sacrifice was an essential necessity for our peace and security, individual, and national. These mournful honors serve to renew, in glowing remembrance, the grand ideas that actuated them, and the unspeakable good their sacrifice served to make sure for all peoples, of all lands, in all the ages yet to come.

Read the rest of Shepard’s address here.

From Missouri’s Civil War Blog, we hope you have a wonderful Memorial Day – full of remembrance, but also celebration of freedom. The 750,000+ men who gave their lives during the Civil War then set the path for why and how Americans honor their heroes, especially on Memorial Day.


[1] “Memorial Day,” May 31, 1870, Leavenworth Daily Commercial.

[2] Note: Shepard’s appointment to brigadier general was never officially confirmed by the United States Senate.

[3] “Gen. Isaac F. Shepard,” August 31, 1889, Cambridge Chronicle, vol. 44, no. 2271.

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