Memorial Day's Birthplace Remembers Its Fallen Heroes
America was still at war with itself in October 1864. Armed conflict had broken out more than three years earlier, ripping the fabric of the fragile 85-year-old union apart at its North-South seam. By the time the nation began to awake from its nightmare with the dawn of Appomattox, more than 620,000 Americans – men and boys, women and girls – had been killed.
The tragedy touched almost every household in every part of the country. One such was the Meyer family, of Boalsburg.
Joseph and Elizabeth (Weaver) Meyer – the family name has also been recorded, at various times, as Myers and Moyer – had 13 children. One of them, Amos, was a private in the Union Army’s 148th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, “The Centre County Regiment,” which fought at Chancellorsville in May and at Gettysburg in July the previous year. It was on that Pennsylvania battlefield on July 3, 1863, the final day of that three-day turning- point in American history, that Amos Meyer gave, in his president’s immortal phrase, “the last full measure of devotion” to preserve his country and help free his countrymen in bondage.
Elizabeth Meyer was thinking about her son on that October Sunday a year and a quarter after his death as she walked through the Boalsburg Cemetery with an arm full of fresh flowers she intended to place on Amos’ grave. It was there Mrs. Meyer met two younger women from town: Emma Hunter and her friend, Sophie Keller. They, too, had come to the cemetery to pay tribute to a family member – Emma’s father, Dr. Reuben Hunter, a Union Army surgeon who had recently died of yellow fever – with freshly cut garden flowers.
The women talked, shared their loss and the pride they had for their respective loved ones. And they agreed to return the following year to pay tribute, not only to their own family members who had fallen during the American Civil War, but others who may not have had any relatives to remember, to mourn, to commemorate their lives – and sacrificial deaths.
Other townsfolk heard of the ladies’ plan and came to the cemetery with them for 1865’s solemn ceremony, and the tradition of Decoration Day – and now Memorial Day – was born. The dedication shown by Elizabeth Meyer, Emma Hunter and Sophie Keller is itself memorialized at the cemetery with a statue, sculpted by Lorann Jacobs, depicting their now-famous act of decorating the graves of their loved ones with flowers.
Not far from that statue is another grave – freshly dug not yet 9 months ago – in which the body of James Dearing rests. Dearing’s spirit will be with his comrades of Battery B of the 3rd Pennsylvania Volunteers Light Artillery, a Civil War re-enactment group Dearing helped establish decades ago. Dearing, a veteran of the U.S. Army and the State College Borough Police Department, retired as a corporal from the Pennsylvania State Police. He rose to the rank of colonel in Battery B, however, and was its commander until a stroke forced him to step aside about eight years ago.
“He was still involved, though,” Dick Koontz, current Battery B commander, said of his close friend, who died at last September at age 69. “He sort of stayed around and always consulted.”
And in his memory, Battery B retains the name of its founder in parenthesis after its official numerical designation – it is still “Dearing’s Battery.”
“He worked hard at it, and he loved it,” Koontz recalled. And Dearing was instrumental in raising the money necessary to erect the memorial to the three ladies of Boalsburg whose act of remembrance helped give birth to today’s Memorial Day. And through the years, Battery B could be counted on to provide an authentic historical atmosphere – and authentic patriotic noise – for Boalsburg’s annual Memorial Day event.
“He’ll always be in a lot of our minds, and particularly this time of year,” Koontz said.
“Every Memorial Day we replenish the flowers at the memorial. We also get a big wreath and our ladies – the Ladies of Battery B in period dress – carry it during the walk to the cemetery,” Koontz said.
“And we’ll be there – Battery B – all day Monday, firing the cannons right over Jim’s grave,” Koontz said. “It’s right there, very close to the statue – as close as we could get it.”
That, too, is an altogether fitting tribute on this weekend of remembrance.