Decoration Day

The Martyrs of the Race Course dedication from the USslave blog
Memorial day has been set aside for the living to remember the dead.

It began in 1865 -- 150 years ago this month.

The Civil War had just ended when what is now thought to be the first memorial celebration began.

As Historian David Blight wrote for the New York Times a few years ago:

By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender. Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865.

As Blight tells us, the freed slaves of the city got to work digging up the bodies of 257 Union soldiers. These men had been dumped into a mass grave at a Confederate prison camp located at Washington race track. They worked for two weeks to dig proper graves, landscaping the cemetery and intering the dead with the honor they deserved.

They called them the Martyrs of the Racecourse -- recognized them as men who had died fighting for their freedom. On May first, after the reburial, there was a parade of thousands through the streets of Charleston lead by black children singing and carring flowers to decorate the graves.

Afterwards they did what we do on Memorial day, enjoyed picnics in the fine spring weather.

The first spring of peace a year later -- those first flowers blooming amid the grief-filled anniversaries of wars end  -- brought out many to mark graves with their sorrow.

In April of 1866 a group of women came out to mark the graves of the those that had fallen at the battle of Shiloh. Deep in the south, the final resting places of the Union dead had gone untended. Disturbed by the bare and neglected stones, the women Columbia, Miss. placed flowers in memorium of the Union as well as the Confederate dead.

In the wake of the Civil War -- in May of 1866 the town of Waterloo, New York. Flags around town were flown at half-staff and business closed to remember those who died in the Civil War.  The great conflict had been a big bloody war in what was still then a small country. It didn't take long for every family to be personally touched by casualties of the conflict. The graves that were decorated on that day were men and boys known to the living on a first name basis. According to the Department of Veteran's Affairs, that was the birthplace of the holiday.

It was a war when brother fought brother, but it was also a war that ended with burning resentment smoldering in the ashes, still glowing in the aftermath of the Confederate surrender. The war had ended in April, barely end a year before, followed by the murder of President Lincoln. This first decoration days were small and local.

Yet, thus began the reknitting of a country that had been rent asunder during the conflict. Twenty-five other communities -- mostly in the South -- claimed to have originated decoration day ceremonies that April with such simple acts of honoring the dead of both the North and South.

In 1868 Decoration Day was officially established by the union veterans organization the Grand Army of the Republic by Maj. General John Logan.

That year they stood at the home of the opposing Confederate general -- Gen. Robert E. Lee -- and gave speeches. His family home lay just across the river from the nation's capital. By then it had been taken to form Arlington National Cemetery. Flowers, hymns were sung and prayers said for those who had gave the ultimate sacrifice under arms, regardless of what uniform they wore.

So Decoration Day as it was then called, was moment of healing, of respecting and reminding those who survived of not only what was lost, but what was needed to move into the future. By World War I the holiday was expanded to honor all those who died in service to the country.

Yet it does us well to remember that the origins of the holiday are in honor not of kin and neighbor, but the unknown martyrs that lay in unmarked graves. Men and women who sacrificed for us, without ever knowing our names.

A century and half on from the end of the Civil War we still find ourselves a nation divided. We still take up sides in increasingly inflexible ideologies. Whereas the nation has often had a leadership suffused with veterans to guide us, today they are few in number and have been on the decline. Veterans serve to bring needed perspective when the authorization for putting troops in battle is up for debate. We honor them and rely on their leadership.

Like so many, I didn't serve in the military because I didn't have to. Others went off to serve in my stead. Others have gone off for generations to fight for those of us here at home. I guess I always thought that this was a day to decorate the grave of a loved one who had fallen in service to our country.

What I have learned is that it is more profound than that. These first celebrations were anonymous. Those that lay in an unmarked mass grave in Charlotte and untended stones in Columbia. This day honors their sacrifice because they took up arms to fight for the lives of people they would never meet - for they fight and die for something greater than themselves.

We do not need to know their names to honor them. We need only pause to honor and try and understand the greater arc that can bring us together.


Read David Blights "Forgetting Why We Remember"
Read my traditional memorial day post "One of Many on Memorial Day"

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