About Corazon

Monday, May 28, 2012

The First Memorial Day Celebration

Happy Memorial Day, everyone!

On this day, Americans from all over the nation pay homage to our brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom (and no, that isn't just some cliche thing that we say but is the literal truth).  This is a solemn day of reflection, reverence and remembrance that should inspire every citizen of this nation to be a better and more grateful person.

Most Americans are probably unfamiliar with the history of Memorial Day, a history that dates back quite a ways in our nation's book of remembrance.  Officially, Memorial Day (which was actually called Decoration Day) began in May of 1868, almost immediately following the American Civil War.  General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared May 30th of that year to be a day set aside for the "decoration of graves with flowers for Union and Confederate forces at Arlington National Cemetery...and all other cemeteries of the nation."  This first "Decoration Day" was to remember the high price that the nation had paid in the cause of freedom.

And make no mistake, this first generation of Americans that celebrated "Decoration Day" knew very well the high price of war.  The American Civil war, unlike any American war before or since, gave our nation a front row seat to the carnage of war.  With more than 750,000 dead (more than all other American wars combined) Americans everywhere had cause to mourn.  This massive loss of life was an obvious reality for every American in every corner of the still infant nation.  Celebrating a memorial/decoration day only made good sense.

But the story of General Logan and the first "official" Memorial Day celebration of 1868 was not the precedent-setter for this national holiday that so many have come to accept.  The very first Memorial Day is actually a beautiful (an forgotten) story that deserves recognition.  The story takes place in the city of Charleston, South Carolina, where by the end of the Civil War the town lay in virtual ruins.  The city had been abandoned by White citizens and Confederate troops and was on the verge of surrendering to the Union.  Finally on April 29th, Union forces, including the 21st U.S. Colored Infantry, took the city and accepted the official surrender of Charleston.

Just a couple of days after the official surrender of the city (on May 1 to be exact), thousands of Black Charlestonians, most former slaves, held a series of memorials to those who had paid the ultimate price for their new found freedom.  Scores of Black citizens made their way to Charleston's horse race track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, which had been converted into a prison for Union soldiers.  The conditions in the prison had been horrific, and at least 260 men perished due to disease.  Most of the dead had been hastily buried in mass graves just months prior.  On this day, this group of Black citizens worked tirelessly to see that all of these deceased Union soldiers received the proper burial they deserved.  The grounds of the race track were also repaired, cleansed and given a sense of reverence all to honor a small group of fallen heroes.

This simple act of kindness, in memory of a group of "enemy" soldiers, spawned a massive movement that captured the entire city of Charleston.  As Yale historian David W. Blight points out:
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. 
According to a reminiscence written long after the fact, "several slight disturbances" occurred during the ceremonies on this first Decoration Day, as well as "much harsh talk about the event locally afterward." But a measure of how white Charlestonians suppressed from memory this founding in favor of their own creation of the practice later came fifty-one years afterward, when the president of the Ladies Memorial Association of Charleston received an inquiry about the May 1, 1865 parade. A United Daughters of the Confederacy official from New Orleans wanted to know if it was true that blacks had engaged in such a burial rite. Mrs. S. C. Beckwith responded tersely: "I regret that I was unable to gather any official information in answer to this." In the struggle over memory and meaning in any society, some stories just get lost while others attain mainstream dominance.
We are fortunate to have the history of this first Memorial Day for all to enjoy.  The imagery of Black slaves, reverently and humbly providing a proper burial for Union soldiers, is a reminder of just how precious freedom really is, and the high cost that we are sometimes required to pay for it.  On this Memorial Day, I am grateful to the God of Heaven for the freedoms I enjoy.  God bless this great land that we live in!

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