Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women's groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, "Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping" by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication "To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead" (Source: Duke University's Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920). While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it's difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860's tapped into the general human need to honor our dead, each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in Gen Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868. It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.

1 comment:

  1. Charleston was in ruins.

    The peninsula was nearly deserted, the fine houses empty, the streets littered with the debris of fighting and the ash of fires that had burned out weeks before. The Southern gentility was long gone, their cause lost.

    In the weeks after the Civil War ended, it was, some said, "a city of the dead."

    On a Monday morning that spring, nearly 10,000 former slaves marched onto the grounds of the old Washington Race Course, where wealthy Charleston planters and socialites had gathered in old times. During the final year of the war, the track had been turned into a prison camp. Hundreds of Union soldiers died there.

    For two weeks in April, former slaves had worked to bury the soldiers. Now they would give them a proper funeral.

    The procession began at 9 a.m. as 2,800 black school children marched by their graves, softly singing "John Brown's Body."

    Soon, their voices would give way to the sermons of preachers, then prayer and — later — picnics. It was May 1, 1865, but they called it Decoration Day.

    On that day, former Charleston slaves started a tradition that would come to be known as Memorial Day.

    History discovered

    For years, the ceremony was largely forgotten.

    It had been mentioned in some history books, including Robert Rosen's "Confederate Charleston," but the story gained national attention when David W. Blight, a professor of American history at Yale, took interest. He discovered a mention of the first Decoration Day in the uncataloged writings of a Union soldier at a Harvard University library.

    He contacted the Avery Research Center in Charleston, which helped him find the first newspaper account of the event. An article about the "Martyrs of the Race Course" had appeared in the Charleston Daily Courier the day after the ceremony. Blight was intrigued and did more research. He published an account of the day in his book, "Race and Reunion." Soon he gave lectures on the event around the country.

    "What's interesting to me is how the memory of this got lost," Blight said. "It is, in effect, the first Memorial Day and it was primarily led by former slaves in Charleston."

    http://www.postandcourier.com/news/2009/may/24/the_first_memorial_day83450/

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