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This weekend we will be celebrating Memorial Day. There are quite a few stories about the origin of this holiday, but they all do go back to the Civil War years.
The first name used was “Decoration Day” where people went to the cemeteries and placed flowers or decorations on the graves of fallen soldiers.
It is not clear exactly where Decoration or Memorial Day was first held since many different areas may have held some type of remembrance events both during and after the Civil War. In researching this I found a remarkably interesting story that hit close to home for me. Last week, the Wilsons and I were on a trip that included many Revolutionary and Civil War sites from Charleston, S.C., down the Georgia coast. We rode the ferry out to Ft. Sumter where the first shots of the Civil War were heard. I will come back to that later.
The story I found was about a group of formerly enslaved people who organized a parade about a month after the end of the Civil War in 1865. This parade was held at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston where the Confederate Army had a prison for captured Union soldiers. The soldiers who died there were buried in mass graves, but this group relocated their bodies to a new cemetery that was designated with a sign “Martyrs of the Race Course.” The bodies were later moved again to the National Cemetery in Beaufort, S.C.
There were only a few reports of this event that were finally found by David Blight, a professor of American history from Yale University. While doing research at the Houghton Library at Harvard University, Professor Blight found articles in “The New York Tribune” and the “Charleston Courier.” According to these reports, a crowd of freed slaves, white missionaries, school children, veterans of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, and others made up the 10,000 people in attendance. Even with additional research Blight could not find any other references to this event but, if accurate, this would have been the first Memorial Day celebration.
The only other mention of this event was found in a 1916 letter from a historical group in New Orleans to a sister organization in Charleston asking about a parade at a racetrack after the Civil War. Finally, after Professor Blight’s book “Race and Reunion” was released, he spoke to a group at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History where he met an older Black woman who had heard stories from her grandfather about a parade at the old racetrack. She said they never knew whether to believe him or not!
The first National Memorial Day celebration was held at Arlington Cemetery on May 30, 1868. Ironically, this was on property that had been owned by General Robert E. Lee and his family, but was confiscated by the Union Army to be used to bury the dead during the war. But it was not until 1966 that the federal government declared the official birthplace of Memorial Day as Waterloo, N.Y., because the people there had started an annual event on May 5, 1866, where businesses were closed so the people could decorate the graves of veterans.
This is an example of how much history has been lost through the years and how much of it was only heard in stories passed down through families. It is important for all of us to share these stories – so now I will share one that I learned on Ft. Sumter!
Fort Sumter was under the command of U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson who had been an instructor at West Point, and the Confederate forces were under the command of Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, who had been one of Major Anderson’s students at West Point.
We were told by a National Park ranger that on April 14, 1861, during the attacks on Ft. Sumter, Commander Anderson refused to surrender the fort, but, after a fire broke out, he was allowed to “evacuate” with his 150 troops. He lowered a 33-star American flag being flown over Ft. Sumter and took it with him.
After the war ended, he returned to Ft. Sumter on April 14, 1865, and raised that same flag again to fly over a now severely damaged fort. The reports of this event were overshadowed that day by an even larger – and historic – event. That was the day President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Again, sometimes the stories are recorded differently! I did find a report of this event, but it said that Major Anderson surrendered rather than evacuated. I want to think that the student allowed the teacher to leave under a condition of honor rather than defeat.
While we also visited Ft. Moultrie, Ft. Pulaski, Ft. Frederica, and other historic sites on this trip, the experience of a lifetime was at Fort Sumter! The three of us were among a group of volunteers who helped raise the American flag over the fort that morning. The flag is transported to the fort each morning by ferry to be raised and then lowered and returned to shore each afternoon. What a wonderful honor it was to be able to participate in such a patriotic ceremony!
So, now, please think about what this holiday weekend is really about. We are to remember all the men and women who have served in our militaries and paid the ultimate price for us. Without them, where would we be? Please take time to say a prayer of thanks for each one of them and a prayer of hope for our futures.