Unlocking History

Prisons honored fallen soldiers in memorial ceremonies

Men and women place flowers on gravestones.
Salvation Army Major Cleve Stairs, volunteers and incarcerated people place flowers near gravestones, Memorial Day, San Quentin State Prison, circa 1930s. (Courtesy Salvation Army Museum of the West.)

Experience Memorial Day from the early years in California

After the Civil War, a grieving nation established Decoration Day to honor the dead, eventually becoming known as Memorial Day. Through the years, California prison staff and the incarcerated have gathered to pay their respects.

Folsom State Prison

Folsom prison had a tradition of helping with Memorial Day celebrations. There was mention of thanks to the prison in 1907 as well as following years.

In 1913, incarcerated gardeners gathered flowers for Sacramento’s Memorial Day ceremonies.

“Flowers will be received from Folsom prison (thanks to) Warden James Johnston,” reported the Sacramento Daily Union, May 26, 1913.

Warden Johnston was also thanked by the Grand Army of the Republic, organizer for the ceremonies.

During memorial ceremonies the following year, prisoners learned about a fatal shipwreck.

“At Folsom prison, Captain William Day, prison commission superintendent, delivered a Memorial Day address on ‘Flowers for the Living.’ Day declared while he believed in honoring our hero dead, he also (believed in giving) people bouquets while they were alive.

“‘These flowers,’ he said, ‘may be encouraging words, kindly acts, and noble deeds.’ The speaker (also discussed the) disastrous shipwreck of the Empress, (drawing compassion from the incarcerated)” reported the Sacramento Union, June 1, 1914.

“Having heard with great sorrow the account of the awful shipwreck, (we) express sympathy for the hundreds of friends and relatives of the victims,” the men wrote.

Preston School of Industry

“Decoration Day at Preston was observed not by strewing flowers on the graves of Civil War heroes, but by (covering with roses) the graves of the six boys buried here. It was impressive to see 400 (youth), in new uniforms and carrying roses, (gather in formation) in front of the main building. (They then marched) the winding path to the isolated spot where six homeless boys are buried,” according to the Preston Review, June 3, 1911.

San Quentin State Prison

“Decoration Day was observed (at) San Quentin with exercises appropriate to the occasion,” reported the Sausalito News, June 5, 1891.

“The program for the day was as follows:

  • Bugle calls and prayer
  • Star Spangled Banner sung by the Prison Quartet
  • Recitation by C.M. Blackburn
  • Remarks by Prison Chaplain August Drahms
  • (Main speaker) Col. Homer B. Sprague of George H. Thomas Post, No. 2.

In 1910, Warden John Hoyle’s Memorial Day services deeply affected many of those attending.

“A (speech) by Judge Albert Glen Burnett at Memorial Day services (at San Quentin) brought tears to many prisoners. Attorney L.T. Hatfield, known for his interest in prison affairs, also spoke,” reported the San Francisco Call, May 30, 1910.

Whittier State School

“Old soldiers (marched to Whittier with) the school drum corps. A (speech by) Judge Owens was followed by good vocal music (thanks to) boys from the school,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, June 2, 1893.

The soldiers and incarcerated students marched to the cemetery where they decorated the grave of the lone Civil War veteran buried there.

History of Memorial Day

  • May 5, 1868 – General John Logan officially proclaims Decoration Day. On May 30 of that year, flowers are placed on the graves of Union soldiers at Arlington Cemetery.
  • 1869-1911 – Other states start observing Decoration Day. Over time, the name gradually changes to Memorial Day.
  • 1919-1920 – Soldiers killed during World War I are add to the remembrances.
  • 1971 – Memorial Day becomes an officially recognized federal holiday.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

Learn more about California prison history.

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