The Meaning of Memorial Day

on Jun 01, 2010 in Blog by

“What is Memorial Day for, Mom?”  This was the question from my 9-year-old son as we sat at the dinner table on the night before the holiday  His 6-year-old brother cocked his head at me, eyes wide, waiting for “the answer.”  As I related to him what I had always been told (i.e., that it’s a day to remember the soldiers who died for our country), I realized that I didn’t know anything about the origin of the holiday or even which war prompted it.  Unsatisfied with my own knowledge, I did some quick research and uncovered something interesting but not surprising–a counterstory.

The majoritarian story credits General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (the Union Army’s veterans organization), for his 1868 call for all veterans and their communities to hold ceremonies and decorate the graves of soliders who had died in the Civil War.   This practice spread across the nation.  Thereafter, cities in both the north and south claimed the first Memorial Day, but none date back as far as what Yale historian David Blight discovered in his research.

According to Blight, Memorial Day was created by blacks, in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, in Charleston, South Carolina.  As Blight tells us:

“Thousands of black Charlestonians, most former slaves, remained in the city and conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events, and unknown until some extraordinary luck in my recent research, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters’ horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. 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.”

At 9 am on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathering in the cemetery enclosure; a childrens’ choir sang “We’ll Rally around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. No record survives of which biblical passages rung out in the warm spring air, but the spirit of Leviticus 25 was surely present at those burial rites: “for it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you… in the year of this jubilee he shall return every man unto his own possession.”

Following the solemn dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: they enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches, and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantry participating was the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th U.S. Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite. The war was over, and Decoration Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been all about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic, and not about state rights, defense of home, nor merely soldiers’ valor and sacrifice.”

[Blight also reminds us that states in the south celebrate(d) Confederate Memorial Day: April 26 (the day General Joseph Johnston surrendered to General William T. Sherman) in many deep South states; May 10 (Stonewall Jackson's birthday) in the Carolinas; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis's birthday) in Virginia.]

I now have a counterstory to tell my sons–one that places people of color in the center.  And, I was reminded of a lesson I have learned and, for some reason, must keep relearning.  “All such stories … are but prelude to future reckonings. All memory is prelude.”  Thank you, David Blight.

Read the full David Blight article here.

Read an interesting blog article on the topic here.

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