"THE FIRST MEMORIAL DAY"
May 1, 1865
Believe it or not, Memorial Day wasn't invented for sleeping late, department store sales, or professional sporting events - it is to be a day of honoring the nation's dead! As early as 1866, over 25 cities (mostly in the South) claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day). It was to be a day of solemn remembrance, thanks, consecration, and celebration of the 625,00+ soldiers who sacrificed their lives during The Civil War. But, according to Yale University history professor David Blight we must look to the primary sources for the true origins of Memorial Day!
Flag-raising over Ft. Sumter - April 14, 1865
By the spring of 1865, Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first troops was the 21st United States Colored Infantry who accepted the city’s official surrender. The whites of Charleston had mostly abandoned the city, but thousands of African-Americans, mostly former slaves who remained to celebrate their freedom and began immediately to commemorate all they were thankful for.
Washington Race Track Grandstand ca. 1865
The largest commemoration event in Charleston occurred at Washington Race Track on May 1, 1865. The Confederate Army had converted this large plantation and horse racing track (a true symbol of Southern wealth, power, and aristocracy) into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were held in horrible conditions in the interior of the track and at least 257 died of disease and were buried in a mass grave behind the beautiful Italianate Grandstand.
At the conclusion of the war, the freedmen of Charleston went to the site, reburied the Union dead in a proper cemetery, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They painted the fence white and built an archway over the entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
"For the Martyrs"
Together with white missionaries and teachers, they staged a parade of over 10,000 on the mile long track. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing
“a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”
The parade was led by 3,000 African-American children carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Hundreds of women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came marching freed men, followed by a brigade of Union infantry that included the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite. At the cemetery, a children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and many spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible. After the speeches many gathered for picnics and continued to watch soldiers drill.
Listen to "John Brown's Body"
Frederick Douglass reminds us to never forget the true meaning of The Civil War (and Memorial Day)...a day of ideals!
“it was a war of ideas, a battle of principles...between the old and the new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization ... and in dead earnest for something beyond the battlefield.”