All across America the day is recognized both as Memorial Day and as Decoration Day. Decoration Day is the original name used for many years. Memorial/Decoration Day is a time when people visit the graves of their loved ones, clean the graves, put up flags and lay flowers.
There are parades in towns all across America and these parades often include veterans and military personnel. The tradition is to wear a red poppy flower. This poppy was inspired by a poem written at the end of World War I called “In Flanders Fields,” by John McCrae. We will include the poem at the end of this writing.
Also, Memorial Day is unofficially considered the beginning of summer, and quite a few hold their first picnic or outing. Memorial Day weekend is the opportunity to enjoy a weekend with family, and maybe take a weekend trip since Monday is a holiday. So, it’s a feeling of… finally, summer is here, let’s do something!
One of the Original Memorial Day Commemorations
The first Memorial Day is claimed to have taken place in Charleston, SC within a month of the surrender of the Confederacy. The information about this commemoration is interesting and touching. Reports of it were discovered in a Harvard University archive in the late 1990s. The reports revealed that a Memorial Day commemoration was organized by a group of Black people freed from slavery less than a month before.
The story tells that there was a racetrack in Charleston where the Confederate army imprisoned Union captives. While in this prison, more than 260 Union soldiers died from disease and exposure as they were imprisoned in the open air. Their bodies were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. When the Confederate troops evacuated Charleston, the men and women who had been freed from slavery gave the Union soldiers a proper burial. They reinterred the bodies in a new cemetery surrounded by a tall white fence. The words inscribed on the fence were: “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
From History.com we learn more: “And then on May 1, 1865, something even more extraordinary happened. According to two reports that Blight found in The New York Tribune and The Charleston Courier, a crowd of 10,000 people, mostly freed slaves with some white missionaries, staged a parade around the race track. Three thousand Black schoolchildren carried bouquets of flowers and sang “John Brown’s Body.” Members of the famed 54th Massachusetts and other Black Union regiments were in attendance and performed double-time marches. Black ministers recited verses from the Bible.”
And there were more Commemorations
Waterloo, New York was declared by the government to be the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966. The Waterloo commemoration was on May 5th, 1866. On this day the businesses closed in the city and the residents held a ceremony and decorated the graves with flowers and flags.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, with so many soldiers who had died, national cemeteries had to be established. Americans in various towns and cities, with and without national cemeteries, held tributes to the fallen soldiers in the late 1860s. They decorated the graves and recited prayers. We can conclude that Decoration Day, which became today’s Memorial Day, began in many places across the country in the years following the end of the Civil War.
Again from Military.com we read: “On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed.
“The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle. On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there.”
World Wars I and II
In its early days Decoration Day honored soldiers who died in the Civil War, but that changed after WW I. As that war ended, and once again so many had died, the holiday evolved to commemorate those who gave their lives. And as we know, the holiday now commemorates all who gave their lives, in the Civil War, WW I, WW II, the Viet Nam War, the Korean War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The date of Memorial Day was always May 30th.
It was in 1968 that Congress established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May to create a three-day weekend for federal employees.
Please enjoy Memorial Day. It is not meant to be somber and sad but is meant to show the most respect we can show, as these men and women gave their lives so that we might be able to enjoy freedom and democracy. It’s the ultimate sacrifice and we thank them.
Here below is the poem, “In Flanders Fields” written after WW I.
“In Flanders Fields”
by John McCrae, May 1915
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
HERE you will find a YouTube video from the Gullah Geechee community in South Carolina at the location of the “Martyrs of the Race Course” commemoration.