This year’s Memorial Day observance coincides with the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the USS Cincinnati in the Mississippi River. While serving on that ironclad, Navy Seaman Martin McHugh (McCue) saved his crewmates’ lives — and those heroic actions brought him to the attention of President Lincoln and the U.S. Congress.
The Danville man was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor exhibited that day during the siege of Vicksburg. After more than 100 years in an unmarked grave, McHugh received a special Medal of Honor military stone and plaque, which were dedicated last spring at Resurrection Cemetery.
McHugh is one of five Medal of Honor recipients buried in Vermilion County. Six others have ties to the county, but are buried elsewhere. Most communities the size of Danville and Vermilion County have far fewer recipients of the nation’s highest military award.
Other Medal of Honor recipients include Lt. Morton Read of the 8th New York Cavalry, who is buried in Section 10 at the Danville National Cemetery.
Colonel and Brevetted Gen. John Charles Black of the 37th Illinois Infantry is interred at Spring Hill Cemetery’s Block 12. Also at Spring Hill, Kenneth Bailey — one of the most well-known of all the U.S. Marines from World War II — is buried in Block 16.
Woodlawn Cemetery at Indianola is the final resting place of Lt. Col. Ernest Williams, also a U.S. Marine.
Medal of Honor recipients associated with Vermilion County, but not buried here, are: Capt. William Black of the 37th Illinois Infantry, Pvt. Harry Finkenbiner of the 107th Ohio Infantry, Sgt. William Holmes of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry, Sgt. Joseph Knight of the 6th U.S. Cavalry, Major Carlos Ogden of the U.S. Army, and Sgt. Benjamin Schenck of the 116th Illinois Infantry.
The Medal of Honor is the United States’ highest military honor, awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. The medal is awarded by the president in the name of Congress to U.S. military personnel.
Decorating the graves of fallen soldiers is an ancient custom, and has taken place in America on an individual basis since the birth of the country. But the first official nationwide observance was in May 1868, following various springtime “Decoration Days” that had started during the Civil War.
Organizations and individuals had come together to honor the war dead in the North and South. There are numerous claims on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line as to where the first Decoration Day was held.
Starting in 1866, a Confederate Memorial Day was being observed across the South. Two years later, John A. Logan of Illinois — namesake of Danville’s Logan Avenue — who had served as a general in the Civil War and also in the U.S. Congress, was the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans group. He issued a proclamation that all the individual observances across the country should be merged into one observance and held each year on the same date.
In 1968, Memorial Day became one of the uniform Monday holidays, moving from its previous May 30 designation.