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Memorial Day

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

On May 5th 1868, General John A. Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Orders no. 11, designating May 30th as a memorial day to honor those on both sides who had fallen in the Civil War and yearly to keep alive the memory of their sacrifice.

Among the first cities to respond to Logan's call was the small river community of Keokuk, Iowa. Keokuk’s Weekly Gate City newspaper called for every citizen to join a procession to the cemetery, where the military would turn out in force, and girls from Keokuk’s Sunday Schools would scatter flowers, remembering “the glory and merit and brave devotion of the soldiers who sleep there.”

Why Keokuk, so safely and so far removed from the great battlefields of Gettysburg, Antietam, Vicksburg and Belmont? Because Kirkuk was not so safely removed as you might think. During the Civil War, Iowa lost nearly twice as many men as did the 13 original colonies during the seven years of the American Revolution. It was from Keokuk’s Camp Ellsworth that the First Iowa Infantry was mustered into service and headed south by steamboat for the war.

Within a year, some of them had returned. Keokuk had already become a great hospital center for Union and Confederate soldiers sick or wounded in battle. Hospital boats such as the Express. the D. A. January, the Gladiator and the Sunnyside regularly made the trip up to the Mississippi to Keokuk. By the end of 1862, more than 7,000 sick and wounded soldiers were being treated in Keokuk’s war hospitals. By the end of the war, Keokuk had opened six such hospitals.

More than 700 of the soldiers brought to Keokuk did not recover. In many cases, a hospital bed was a more dangerous place in the Civil War than a battlefield. For these soldiers, the federal government established Iowa’s only national cemetery at Keokuk, where blue and gray lay buried together.

It was at this cemetery that Keokuk citizens held their first Memorial Day, honoring all those who had fallen in the Civil War. But honoring especially those soldiers for whom Keokuk, Iowa was their last and most desperate battle.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.