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Allegheny Cemetery Commemorates 150th Memorial Day

Pittsburgh's iconic Allegheny Cemetery has commemorated Memorial Day for 150 years.

In 1869, four years after the Civil War ended, thousands gathered in downtown Pittsburgh at what’s now the Mon Wharf to honor fallen soldiers with a parade and service. The events came a year after the federal proclamation of “Decoration Day” by General John Logan.

Credit Allegheny Cemetery
A drawing of Decoration Day in 1872 with Civil War veterans and guests on horseback visiting the grave of General Alexander Hays.

A procession from downtown to Lawrenceville included 50 city police officers, multiple fire companies, and the widows and children of military servicemen who died. Allegheny County sent 25,000 men to fight in the Civil War and of those, about 3,000 didn't return. Nancy Foley with the Allegheny Cemetery said homes throughout the city were draped in black or decorated with wreaths and American flags.

“It really paints a scene of an entire community almost really ready to have this gathering and not closure,” Foley said. “It seems to me, from a modern perspective, like a massive funeral.”

When the group reached the Allegheny Arsenal (now the site of Arsenal Middle School) there was a 37-gun salute and church bells tolled in memory of the 78 people who died in an 1862 explosion there. They then proceeded to the cemetery for a service and to decorate graves.

The cemetery, with entry points at Butler Street and Penn Avenue, is the location of 15,000 veterans’ graves from every American conflict since the Civil War. Foley said Pittsburgh residents have returned to the site because everyone has been touched by war in some way.

Credit Allegheny Cemetery
Memorial Day at Allegheny Cemetery in 1959. Veterans are marching toward the 1937 Soldiers Memorial where the service still takes.

“It’s really generations of our own families, our own family of Pittsburghers, who, generation after generation, year after year, have been coming to the same place to do the same thing,” Foley said.

One hundred thirty United States Colored Troops who fought for the Union after the Emancipation Proclamation are buried in the cemetery, as well as three Medal of Honor recipients and eight Civil War generals.

This year’s commemoration includes a community picnic, historic reenactments, a gun volley and a dove release.