Memorial Day: More Than a Springtime Weekend

May 25, 2021

Coming up on the last Monday of May we get to enjoy a 3-day weekend called Memorial Day. For most of us, it’s just a long weekend in the Springtime in which we can get outdoors. We might put little thought into what this holiday is about and how it started.

Officially the holiday honors the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. It was called Decoration Day for years, as families decorated the graves of loved ones who died in war. Nowadays we might see a parade at the local high school, there will be some related TV programs, we’ll see people visiting a cemetery, maybe there will be a veteran’s event and there will likely be a lot of family gatherings. Memorial Day 2021 will occur on Monday, May 31.

This day, recognizing soldiers who died, originated in the years following the Civil War. It became an official federal holiday in 1971. The following is from the History website:

“The Civil War, which ended in the spring of 1865, claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history and required the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries. By the late 1860s, Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.”

Later on in the article, we learn that there is a touching story about what might be the original event.

“It is unclear where exactly this tradition originated; numerous different communities may have independently initiated the memorial gatherings. And some records show that one of the earliest Memorial Day commemorations was organized by a group of formerly enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865. Nevertheless, in 1966 the federal government declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day.

“The race track in question was the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, South Carolina. In the late stages of the Civil War, the Confederate army transformed the formerly posh country club into a makeshift prison for Union captives. More than 260 Union soldiers died from disease and exposure while being held in the race track’s open-air infield. Their bodies were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstands.

“When Charleston fell and Confederate troops evacuated the badly damaged city, those freed from enslavement remained. One of the first things those emancipated men and women did was to give the fallen Union prisoners a proper burial. They exhumed the mass grave and reinterred the bodies in a new cemetery with a tall whitewashed fence inscribed with the words: “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

The story goes on to tell of an extraordinary event. On May 1st, 1865 a crowd of 10,000 mostly freed slaves and white missionaries staged a parade around the race track. The children carried bouquets of flowers and sang “John Brown’s Body” as they marched, and members of Black Union regiments performed double-time marches. The event was covered in the Charleston Daily Courier.

Time Magazine has written about the historical beginnings of Memorial Day in their history section, based on past newspaper coverage.

“Black pastors delivered sermons and led attendees in prayer and in the singing of spirituals, and there were picnics. James Redpath, the white director of freedman’s education in the region, organized about 30 speeches by Union officers, missionaries and black ministers. Participants sang patriotic songs like “America” and “We’ll Rally around the Flag” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In the afternoon, three white and black Union regiments marched around the graves and staged a drill.

“The New York Tribune described the tribute as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.” The gravesites looked like a “one mass of flowers” and “the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them” and “tears of joy” were shed.”

And upon that beginning we celebrate today. Hopefully one day we will celebrate an end to war. We hope you’ve enjoyed this bit of history and the depth and meaning it gives to our Memorial Day of today.