THIS WEEKEND WE OBSERVE MEMORIAL DAY. In today's Memorial Day, our fallen war heroes are celebrated with parades, picnics and speeches. But historically, the day was called Decoration Day. Since the end of the Civil War Decoration Day has been held in May and Americans have been encouraged to decorate the graves of all those lost in battle with Spring flowers. For about 100 years across the States there was no uniformity of when to celebrate and then in 1968 Memorial Day became a formal national holiday on the last Monday in May. But do you know who held the first event honoring fallen soldiers?
THE FIRST MEMORIAL DAY WAS STARTED BY FREED SLAVES. Recently, Pulitzer Prize winner Dr. David Blight of Yale found documents at Harvard which together with a newspaper article from a 1865 Charleston Daily Courier recounts the first commemoration of Civil War soldiers who lost their lives.
FORMER SLAVES HONOR UNION DEAD: These new documents reveal that in Charleston, South Carolina the Confederate army had converted a wealthy plantation owners race track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into a prison camp to hold Union prisoners. Because of the deplorable camp conditions 257 Union soldiers died and were buried in a mass grave. Once the Confederate army surrendered, a group of newly freed slaves reburied the Union soldiers properly and fenced in the little cemetery which they named "Martyrs of the Race Course.". Then, the new accounts tell us "On May 1, 1865, more than 1,000 people recently freed from enslavement, accompanied by regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops (including the Massachusetts 54th Infantry) and a handful of white Charlestonians, gathered in the camp to consecrate a new, proper burial site for the Union dead. For this first historical memorial to war dead, t group sang hymns, gave readings and distributed flowers around the cemetery.”
AN EVENT THE LIKES OF WHICH SOUTH CAROLINA HAS NEVER SEEN BEFORE. That's how this first ever memorial event was described. Try to imagine it, the often quoted description in Blight's book describes "About 10,000 people, mostly black residents, participated in the May 1 tribute, according to coverage back then in the Charleston Daily Courier and the New York Tribune. Starting at 9 a.m., about 3,000 black schoolchildren paraded around the race track holding roses and singing the Union song "John Browns' Body"and were followed by adults representing aid societies for freed black men and women. 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."
NEW HISTORY GIVES DEEPER MEANING Americans have always honored our war dead especially on Memorial Day but now that Dr. David Blight has discovered this lost piece of Black history, now that we know the first Memorial Day honored members of the Union Army who gave their lives to free our enslaved people AND THEY SUCCEEDED, Memorial Day has taken on a whole new and deeper significance.
Remember, you read it in The Facts Newspaper.