Canada County Legionnaires gather to lay a wreath at the GAR headstone of Col. William Winer Cooke in Hamilton on Memorial Day 2012.

Celebrating Memorial Day in Canada

The first time a day of remembrance was observed in Canada was on May 30, 1890, for Canadian veterans of the American Civil War. It is still observed in a small way today.
More than 40,000 Canadians are believed to have volunteered south of the border for the conflict, which raged from 1861 to 1865 and saw the deaths of some 600,000 men – a staggering number by a country of only 30 million in population, the size of Canada today.
As Canada was suffering an economic depression at the time, and American recruiters were offering a $100 bounty to sign up, the adventure of it all drew many. Aggressive recruiters for the Union even tried to get British soldiers stationed in Canada to desert. The result was a large number of war veterans who lived in Canada.
In 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the fraternal organization of Union veterans of the Civil War, established Decoration Day as May 30 – a day on which flowers would be placed on gravesites of Civil War casualties. The name was later changed to “Memorial Day.”
A GAR post named after Col. William Winer Cooke (of whom more later), was established in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1889 through the auspices of the U.S. Consul, Col. Monahan. The practice of holding a ceremony of honor at the gravesites of deceased Civil War veterans began the following year in Canada under the direction of Vice-Consul Col. Richard Butler. The Cooke post continued the practice into the 1930s. But the records of the Cooke post were lost and the locations of the specific gravesites have been, in many cases, forgotten.
Cooke was a veteran of the Civil War, and during the war he happened to meet and befriend one Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Such good friends were they that Custer, on Dec. 28, 1869, arrived in Hamilton to visit Cooke’s family for several days. Cooke later served in Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry, and was killed with Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. Cooke’s mother arranged to have her son’s remains disinterred from his burial site at the Little Big Horn battlefield and reinterred at the family plot in Hamilton Cemetery. Because of his death with Custer, Cooke was the most prominent veteran of the Civil War from the area, and the new GAR post in Hamilton was named after him.
Interest in the location of the gravesites of Civil War veterans was revived through the activity of local historian Robin McKee. McKee gives tours of Hamilton Cemetery based upon certain themes, and one theme was of notable war veterans buried in the cemetery. A veteran of note was William Winer Cooke.
Between the work of McKee and members of American Legion Post CN18 in Hamilton, Memorial Day continues to be observed in Canada and remains Canada’s oldest service of remembrance. Canada’s Civil War veterans are honored on that day.

See more photos here: