By the flow of the inland river,
Whence the fleets of iron have fled,
Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,
Asleep are the ranks of the dead;
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment day;
Under the one, the Blue;
Under the other, the Gray.
Opening verse of The Blue and the Gray
This is the first of the three-day weekend that Memorial Day has come to represent. Some people think of it as National BBQ Day, and while one of the events that eventually lead up to the holiday involved a picnic, it was the aftermath of a serious and somber post-Civil War commemoration. I had heard about this from several sources and dug a little deeper for more information. And this is what I found on Snopes.com which verified the story:
In his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, Professor David W. Blight made the case for Charleston, South Carolina, as Memorial Day’s birthplace, as that city was the site of an obscure (possibly suppressed) May 1865 event held at a racetrack turned war prison, during which freedmen properly reburied hundreds of Union dead found there and then held a ceremony to dedicate the cemetery:
African Americans founded Decoration Day at the graveyard of 257 Union soldiers labeled “Martyrs of the Race Course,” May 1, 1865, Charleston, South Carolina.
The “First Decoration Day,” as this event came to be recognized in some circles in the North, involved an estimated ten thousand people, most of them black former slaves. During April, twenty-eight black men from one of the local churches built a suitable enclosure for the burial ground at the Race Course. In some ten days, they constructed a fence ten feet high, enclosing the burial ground, and landscaped the graves into neat rows. The wooden fence was whitewashed and an archway was built over the gate to the enclosure. On the arch, painted in black letters, the workmen inscribed “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
At nine o’clock in the morning on May 1, the procession to this special cemetery began as three thousand black schoolchildren (newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools) marched around the Race Course, each with an armload of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by three hundred black women representing the Patriotic Association, a group organized to distribute clothing and other goods among the freedpeople. The women carried baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses to the burial ground. The Mutual Aid Society, a benevolent association of black men, next marched in cadence around the track and into the cemetery, followed by large crowds of white and black citizens.
All dropped their spring blossoms on the graves in a scene recorded by a newspaper correspondent: “when all had left, the holy mounds — the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them — were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen; and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond … there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy.” While the adults marched around the graves, the children were gathered in a nearby grove, where they sang “America,” “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The official dedication ceremony was conducted by the ministers of all the black churches in Charleston. With prayer, the reading of biblical passages, and the singing of spirituals, black Charlestonians gave birth to an American tradition. In so doing, they declared the meaning of the war in the most public way possible — by their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade of roses, lilacs, and marching feet on the old planters’ Race Course.
After the dedication, the crowds gathered at the Race Course grandstand to hear some thirty speeches by Union officers, local black ministers, and abolitionist missionaries. Picnics ensued around the grounds, and in the afternoon, a full brigade of Union infantry, including Colored Troops, marched in double column around the martyrs’ graves and held a drill on the infield of the Race Course. The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration.
Although contemporaneous accounts from the Charleston Daily Courier describe and document the 1865 ceremony that took place there, and the event was one the earliest known observances similar to what we would now recognize as Memorial Day, whether it was truly the first such ceremony, and what influence (if any) it might have had on later observances, are still matters of contention. Professor Blight termed it “the first Memorial Day” because it predated most of the other contenders, but he noted he has no evidence that it led to General Logan’s call for a national holiday in 1868: “I’m much more interested in the meaning that’s being conveyed in that incredible ritual than who’s first,” he said.
This is one of many memorial events to those who have served, fought, and died for our country. I’d like to think that my ancestors were a part of that event to honor those who gave all for freedom. As the daughter, mother, niece, ex-wife, cousin, and friend of those who have served over several generations, I’m very proud of my family’s part in preserving what we (should) hold most dear and what should be first – the preservation of liberty. I’m an only child; otherwise, I’m certain I’d be saluting my brothers and sisters as well. In spite of the naysayers, America is still the greatest country in the world; there’s a reason why many die trying to make their way to our shores. And while New York was officially recognized as the original birthplace of Memorial Day, the hundreds of smaller events throughout our country’s history cannot go unacknowledged.
This weekend will see me studying – Sommelier exam next week! – and the wines I’ll be sipping will be American. Of course!
Have a wonderful and safe Memorial Day weekend holiday, and never forget that those with boots on the ground are why we can do what we do today. I mean, look at Russia. Few freedoms and crappy wine.
So it’s okay to enjoy the barbecue, beer, potato salad, and wine. But please take a moment to give a quiet salute to those who have run into the face of danger when the easy thing to do would be run away. Those whose love, hearts and souls are bigger than their fears. To all of you wearing the uniform, I say “Thank You for Your Service. I Appreciate and Love You All.”
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