Memorial Day

998836_10201501954175907_1451387844_nMemorial Day in the United States is designated to remember and honor those men and women who died in service of our country.  Originally conceived following the Civil War, it was called Decoration Day, a day to lay wreaths, flowers, flags and decorations on the graves of those soldiers who had died.  The first observance was on May 30, 1868, by proclamation of General John Logan, national commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic.  It was his intention that observance of the day be continued annually. New York, in 1873, was the first state to declare it a holiday, and most northern states quickly followed.  At that time southern states celebrated their dead on a separate day.  In the aftermath of World War I the observance was expanded to honor those that had served in any American war.   In 1971, Congress officially declared Memorial Day a federal holiday to be celebrated on the last Monday in May.


John Shaw Vitty was probably born 1822 in Canada, a few years before his parents, Joseph Vitty and Mary Ann (Shaw) Vitty, emigrated to the United States.  The household of Joseph Vitty is in the 1825 census for Montreal, it consists of 2 adults and 2 children.  One of those children is Harriet Vitty, Joseph’s oldest daughter and my 3rd great grandmother, the other is presumably John Shaw Vitty, my 3rd great grand uncle.

Joseph and Mary Ann were both born in England, and Canada appears to have been a brief settling point on their way to the United States.  By about 1826 they lived and raised their family in New York’s lower east side.  Several more children were born to the couple.  After his father’s death in 1849, John helped to support his mother, Mary Ann.

In 1860, after the election of President Abraham Lincoln, tensions in the US were high.  Disputes over slavery, economic and cultural disparities sharply divided the North and South.  Although he did not win in a single southern state, in November of 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States of America.  Shortly following the election, several Southern states, lead by South Carolina, seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.  The United States did not recognize the legitimacy of this newly declared nation.  By early 1861, hostilities had increased and war seemed imminent. On April 12, 1861, Confederate  were fired on United States Fort Sumter; war was declared.

John Shaw Vitty enlisted for the Union army April 20, 1861.  He became part of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment.  Colonel E. E. Ellsworth, a friend of President Lincoln, recruited New York Firefighters and the 11th became known as the “First Fire Zouaves” aka  “Ellsworth Fire Zouaves”.  Ellsworth thought the firemen to be particularly suited to soldiering and wanted an elite unit.  John was part of company F, under Captain William Burns.




This was to be an exceptional unit of men, newspaper articles of the time said that many more, possibly twice as many, than the 1200 men requested volunteered for the unit.
The company left New York April 29, 1861 and arrived at Washington about May 3 for training. They were mustered into service at Washington, D.C., May 7, 1861. One of the first time the company was called upon was to assist the local firemen in extinguishing a blaze at the Willard Hotel on May 10th.  So many of his Fire Zouaves responded that Col. Ellsworth took command at the scene.

The 1st Fire Zouaves, first stationed at Washington, D.C., had by late May, moved outside of the city and then on to occupy Alexandria in the newly declared Confederate State of Virginia. It was there that the first Union officer was killed. As he took down and removed an 8×14 foot Confederate flag from the Marshall House (inn), Colonel E. E. Ellsworth was instantly killed by a shot fired by innkeeper James Jackson   One of Ellsworth’s men, Corporeal Francis Brownell then killed Jackson.  Colonel Ellsworth’s remains rested in state at the White House before being returned to New York.


Colonel Ellsworth shot as he descends a stairway carrying a flag by a Rebel sympathizer who is confronted by a Zouave carrying a rifle fixed with bayonet.  Death of Col. Ellsworth after hauling down the rebel flag, at the taking of Alexandria, Va., May 24th 1861. Public domain photo from the Library of Congress.

After the death of Ellsworth, the unit was under the command of Lt Col Farnham.  For the remainder of May, into June and early July the unit was engaged principally with the construction of Fort Ellsworth near Alexandria.  They were brigaded with other units under General Wilcox.  In mid-July they were among the troops sent by order of Brig. General McDowell to advance on the Confederate troops on Manassass.

In the predawn hours of July 21, 1861, 11th NY Infantry and others began a long march to Sudley Ford, ultimately to flank the Confederates.  Relative inexperience, poor maps and inaccurate pre-scouting contributed to the grueling difficulty the soldiers faced.  When the tired troops reached the Confederates they fought with great valor, but ultimately the Union forces were defeated.  The First Zouaves suffered heavy casualites.

A animation about the Battle of Bull Run was created by The Civil War Trust. A link to the video can be found here: Bull Run Animated Map  (at about 3:51 -4:15 you can see the NY 11th on the field).


Bull Run 1861

Battle of Bull Run. Library of Congress, no known restrictions on use.


John Shaw Vitty died in the service of his country, July 21, 1861 at the Battle of Bull Run.  Mary Ann Vitty, applied for a mother’s pension as she had been dependent on her son.  The file includes supporting documentation from Captain Burns.


John Shaw Vitty Page 18


His remains are among those gathered from the battlefield and interred at Arlington National Cemetery, marked by the Civil War Unknowns Monument.


Civil War Monument

Civil War Unknowns monument, designed by Montgomery Meigs and dedicated in 1866, at Arlington Cemetery. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, no known restrictions on use.


Thank you Uncle John Shaw Vitty.


2 thoughts on “Memorial Day

  1. Great read Karen. Now we must go back to Arlington National Cemetery to visit his grave and place a flag .


  2. Next time we will. Last time we were in DC, years ago, we went to the battlefield at Bull Run and learned about the battle there, but I had no idea there was a family connection to that battle. I’m glad I could write about him, he died without a widow or children and his remains are in the tomb of the unknowns. I’m honored to have been able to recognize him and his sacrifice.


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