Did You Know? Origins of Memorial Day

Did you know Memorial Day was celebrated and started before the federal recognition of the holiday?

Families have long gathered together to remember lost loved ones who served their country. However there was no set day for such activites. David W. Blight, a historian at Yale, argues for this origin story of Memorial Day based on his archival research at Harvard.

Although the exact origins are disputed by many, there is a story that Memorial Day began with a series of commemorations by freed black Americans in 1865 after Union soldiers had liberated Charleston, South Carolina during the Civil War.

Black troops

The largest amount of these gatherings occurred on May 1, 1865, at an old horse racing club where hundreds of Union soldiers who had been imprisoned as prisoners of war had died. (POW camps were horrendous and had high death rates during the Civil War, a separate post is to come for that terror)

The black residents near this POW camp exhumed the bodies that had been thrown in a mass grave and gave them a proper burial. They built a fence around the cemetery they created, along with an archway with the inscription, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Afterwards, about ten thousand African Americans held a parade of mourning, with schoolchildren carrying roses. Women carried baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses. Men, including attending Union infantrymen, also marched.

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In a 2011 article for The New York Times, Dr. Blight called this ritual of remembrance the true beginning of Memorial Day. He argued that the African American origins of the holiday were suppressed by white Southerners who took credit for the ritual of remembrance after Reconstruction.

The Other Origin Story

 Others consider the beginning of Memorial Day originating from the order issued in 1868 by Major General John A. Logan, the Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. His order, three years after the end of the Civil War, called for the annual decoration of war graves on May 30. The first Memorial Day occurred that day at Arlington National Cemetery. (Memorial Day was also called Decoration Day)

Some argue that Waterloo, New York, was the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966. Others  believe it began when a druggist suggested flying the flag at half mast and placing flowers on graves.

Memorial Day 1900

Officially Memorial Day

Congress established Memorial Day as a federal holiday in 1971. The federal government set it for the last Monday in May, regardless of the date. However, some complain that since it creates a three day weekend, people are more concerned with cookouts and lake partying rather than the real reason for the holiday. There is a movement to move the holiday back to May 30.

For Further Reading:

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, Professor David W. Blight

Race book

The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday, Dr. Richard Gardiner and Daniel Bellware

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