History & Culture / Home & Family / Opinion

The First Memorial Day–a Story Almost Lost to History

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“Be it remembered, however, that liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned, and bought it for us, at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood.”

-John Adams

As Americans mark the unofficial start of summer with cookouts, getaways, and time with family and friends this Memorial Day weekend, it can be easy to forget what the holiday is truly about—honoring the untold thousands of selfless patriots who have laid down their lives for our country in wartime.

So amid the merriment and jubilation we feel at the coming of summer following a long pandemic, let us take a few moments to remember what Memorial Day is all about. There is no better way to do so than to recall the unexpected story of the holiday’s origins—a story that holds important lessons for our country today.

While Memorial Day did not become an official federal holiday until 1971, its beginnings go all the way back to the immediate aftermath of the deadliest conflict in the history of our nation, the Civil War.

In Charleston, South Carolina, there was a horse racing track called the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club. During the Civil War, it was used by the Confederacy to imprison Union captives. Nearly 300 Union soldiers died of disease and exposure there while being held in the open-air prison. Their bodies were placed in a nearby mass grave.

But almost immediately after the war came to an end, emancipated slaves came to do honor to those soldiers who had given their lives so that millions formerly enslaved could know freedom. They exhumed the bodies of the fallen soldiers and gave them a proper burial in a new cemetery on the same site. On the whitewashed fence they erected around the cemetery, they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Weeks later, on May 1, 1865, a crowd of approximately 10,000 people—mostly freed slaves, and some white missionaries—gathered at the same spot. Veterans of the black 54th Massachusetts Regiment (the heroes of the 1989 film Glory, starring Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick, and Denzel Washington), and other black regiments were there, and performed double-time marches. Three thousand black children brought bouquets of flowers while they sang “John Brown’s Body,” a popular Union marching song inspired by the famous abolitionist John Brown. Black ministers were also present, and recited parts of the Bible.

This remarkable event was reported in The New York Tribune and The Charleston Courier, and has since been recognized as the earliest Memorial Day commemoration on record. The newspaper reports also spoke about how freed slaves organized the first Memorial Day observances at least a year before other American cities, and three years prior to the first national observance.

Today, Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Monday of every May. That first observance on May 1 was on a Monday as well. By the late 1860’s, many American towns and cities were making similar tributes. One of them was Waterloo, New York, which first celebrated Memorial Day on May 5, 1866—about a year after the emancipated slaves of South Carolina conducted their ceremony at the race track. On May 5, 1868, former Union General John A. Logan called for a national Memorial Day holiday. He actually called it “Decoration Day,” given that on that day observers would decorate the graves of the soldiers who had perished, just as the emancipated slaves had done. Logan suggested May 30 be the date of the holiday, given that no noteworthy battle took place on that day. “Decoration Day” gradually became known as “Memorial Day.”

In 1966, the federal government officially recognized Waterloo as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. But thanks to researchers who discovered the earlier story, historians now recognize that the holiday originated with those liberated black Americans in South Carolina, who came together to recognize the supreme sacrifice that so many had made to end the evil of slavery and secure their freedom.

Those who once lived in chains knew the value of what they honored on Memorial Day. Those of us who have never had to live in chains should honor the memory of countless American heroes who gave their lives to secure our own liberty all the more.

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Ron Howard
3 months ago

All who served should be honored. All who served performed their duties contributing to our freedom, as did those who died.

Garye
3 months ago

God Bless America, all its Patriots and those who gave their lives for us to be free.
We the People owe them everything, let’s keep Our Country free.

William Hicks
3 months ago

I knew that our present “Memorial Day ” originated in the South.
As Mr. Paul Harvey said, “And here’s the rest of the story”.

vim
3 months ago

See that your state legislators join C (convention) of S (states). If they are unaware of that, tell them to google it!! That’s the way to reign in the federal government. Check it out for yourselves. This article by AMAC is beautiful, and should be spread, our ability to do that is like it has never been before. Stop name calling and do something that is productive. That’s my opinion!!

America in Decline
3 months ago
Reply to  vim

Vim, please quit telling people that a convention of states is a way to reign in the federal government, because it is NOT. Please read the following article. It will enlighten you. convention-of-states-project I can tell that you have the best of intentions, but please learn about the fallacies of an Article V convention, which Mark Levin and his lemmings renamed it as a “convention of states” in order to dignify it. The U.S. Constitution declares it to be a “FEDERAL” power, not something the states have any control over. Read it for yourself with an open mind and learn the truth about it. Mark Levin is invested in book sales, and can’t bring himself to admit that he is wrong!

America in Decline
3 months ago
Reply to  vim

Vim, I don’t know why the web address for the “Convention of States Project” did not come through. Try this, Google “Convention of States Project: Publius Hulda”. She is far more knowledgeable about the subject than anyone else and is “The Authority” on many constitutional issues.

Ron Howard
3 months ago
Reply to  vim

I was originally a volunteer and supporter of COS until hearing important arguments against it, and why! If you could be certain that all delegates to COS would honor their commitment to address ONLY those resolutions agreed to prior to the COS I would be for it. But there is currently no way to assure that. If the delegates did not ALL honor their commitment to address Only resolutions agreed to prior to the COS it would open the entire Constitution to change and revision. It is not worth the RISK that ANY part of the Constitution could be changed if the delegates addressed any other resolution not previously agreed to prior to the COS. Further, the person leading the push for COS refused to publicly debate the pros and cons of the issue. Why is the main proponent in favor of COS afraid of debating the issues?

CAB
3 months ago

Sadly, to the victor belongs history.

JohnH
3 months ago

Thank you for the very interesting history lesson.

A N Love joy
3 months ago

Not the whole truth.

Hal
3 months ago

Indeed, as US citizens we should definitely honor our service men including those in the distant past who fought to keep America and its allies strong from being overtaken by WW II Japanese and WWII Nazi Germany, who tried to enslave many other Nations to their will. Also, we should as Americans honor those men who served in the Viet Nam War, altho even today I think it was a Democrat contrived war to jack up the economy and distract American citizens from many homeland issues at the time. All Americans who served in past Wars deserve our heartfelt thanks, even those that served in the lesser conflicts, some of which were questionable as to its basis for US actions.

BAE
3 months ago

Yes, honor to the soldiers and their families. Great men and women!

Phoebe Haigler
3 months ago

Wonderful story
I’m so grateful that you shared this history as I wasn’t aware of it.

America in decline
3 months ago

If you’re going to make this about slavery, at least tell the truth. It was a constitutionally protected institution. The former British colonies entered the Union, some as slave states, some as free states. There was no requirement to enter. Each could have continued with their own domestic polices and functioned as independent nations. The federal government was a created entity designed to serve not rule over the states. It was not given “morality police powers.” Slavery could and should have been abolished by amending the constitution, NOT by use of a military coup that forever changed our form of government from a constitutional republic to an oligarchy. All Lincoln did was convert physical slavery into political repression of blacks, but now we are all servants of the federal oligarchs since the KKK Democrats/communists have run the country ever since. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Lincoln is celebrated as a hero, but nothing could be further from the truth. “Case law” has replaced judicial decisions based on the original intent of the founders, thus about 90% of the laws on the books are unconstitutional. We are a nation in rapid decline. All one has to do is look at the horrible policies that have been created by the filthy maggots in the congress and by the current administration who have thrown God in the back of the bus. I grieve because of the ignorance of American people. Waving a flag while ignoring historical revisionist lies that portray Lincoln as a hero is both sad and repulsive.

artzymom
3 months ago

You left out the part that The Southern states were going to secede from the united states completely so they could continue to keep slaves to work those plantations. That is when war began.

A N Love joy
3 months ago
Reply to  artzymom

Not the whole truth.

Ron Howard
3 months ago
Reply to  A N Love joy

If you know “the whole truth” then tell it. otherwise….

America in decline
3 months ago
Reply to  artzymom

You seem to have missed the fact that slavery was a protected institution. The slave states would not have entered the Union if it were outlawed. Secession was always an option of last resort. Read what Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 & ’99. Do you know who Jefferson is? He’s the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence, a secessionist document! Apparently you don’t realize that we seceded from England. So, of course secession is constitutional! Then read James Madison’s Report of 1800 which echoed those same sentiments. Did you miss the grade school history class in which we learned that Madison was the father of the U.S. Constitution? Do you think he knew something about secession, especially since his writings recognize the right of the people to separate themselves from oppression? Our forefathers signed the founding document which allowed slave states to enter the Union because there would have been no Union unless slavery was allowed. All 13 of the colonies had slaves either then or in their recent past, but they knew that slavery was gradually being phased out as it had been in England. Only about 20% of Southerners owned slaves. The South did not have to tolerate a federal government which habitually ignored the enumerated powers listed in Article 1, Section 8. They finally had enough of federal abuse and seceded.     

Dale Single
3 months ago
Reply to  artzymom

Actually, the session started about economic conditions between the Southern states which had little industrial capacity, and the Northern states which had almost all of the industry. The Northern states were holding the production facilities over the collective heads of the Southern states. The freeing of the slaves was a side issue.

Last edited 3 months ago by Dale Single
America in Decline
3 months ago
Reply to  Dale Single

Yes, it was about Northern greed. The Republicans had raised the tariffs so high that the South could not sell their cotton or other agrarian products to England and the European markets. But why would the North do that to the South? Because there was no income tax system in place at the time, and the North was receiving 80% of their revenues from the tariffs on Southern exports, that is until they raised them to the point that their products were not competitive. Petitions and appeals by Southern state representatives were rebuffed. The bankers, industrialists, newspaper editors and even the abolitionists were saying that the South should be allowed to “go in peace”, that is until they realized that the tariff gravy train would go away. One of the first things they did was to block the Southern ports and conjure up a politically motivated “moral high ground abolition” campaign against the South. Abolition became more important than obeying the constitution’s protection of state sovereignty. By the way, Lincoln was no friend of the black man. In his first inaugural address, he gave his support to the Corwin amendment which would have amended the constitution and made slavery permanent had it passed. He also supported the deportation of slaves back to Africa. Lincoln told Confederate president Jeff Davis, “keep your slaves, but come back into the Union.” All of this hypocrisy was what drove the South out of the Union. To stay in that unholy alliance was intolerable, yet to this day, Americans still treat Lincoln as a hero and still fail to recognize that when the South died, so did the republic. The U.S. Constitution is now only given lip service, but is really no more than a “dead letter.”

Patrick McClurkin
3 months ago

I seriously doubt that an amendment to our Constitution would have had much effect on ending slavery in our country. The southern states would have most likely seceded, and for economic and political reasons war would have ensued. You are right that our nation is in decline due to the Marxist/demonic-rat party ignoring and perverting our Constitution! There now seems no way to stop the destruction of our country other than an armed conflict. Sadly, history does repeat itself!

America in Decline
3 months ago

Yes, the South would have seceded anyway because the Republicans under Lincoln had usurped the checks & balances and became lawless, having set aside the rule of law. Invading sovereign independent nation-states (the South) was the act of a despot. State’s rights was what the constitution was designed to protect. But, after state sovereignty was breached many times, in many ways the South seceded when it became clear that there was no other option. Fedzilla was born, and had unquenchable power lust. Until America revisits the true motives for Northern aggression and quits using slavery as a pretense to justify the false narrative that it was a just war, our nation cannot heal. The critical race theory, BLM, and Antifa all carry the sword of Lincoln, and are using it the same way that he did. Victimhood is a Marxist tool that is used by tyrants to divide and conquer.

John fallon
3 months ago

Just came from Memorial day observance, guest speaker read this story to the crowd, everyone should save this story and share it every Memorial Day, so no one ever forgets. Thank You to my fellow Veterans and “WELCOME HOME AND THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE”!!!!!!

Patriot Will
3 months ago

What a beautiful story, so moving and so to the point. Ironically, today, it appears that many blacks do not even comprehend that many whites gave their lives for an end to slavery. Today, it appears that many, perhaps a majority of, blacks are totally unappreciative of this country’s true history. Thus, it makes it very easy for the race baiters and haters to spread their lies and propaganda.

AnneW
3 months ago
Reply to  Patriot Will

That was a moving story which I had never heard before. I wonder whether any of the freed slaves who went to the Racetrack to honor the dead soldiers believed that the dead men had to be racists because they were white. I think not. They honored those dead soldiers because they fought for freedom from slavery. We need to find a way to eliminate today’s animosity between the races and come together into a united country once again. We owe it to all those who died in every war in which the United States was involved as they fought for freedom for every American.

A N Love joy
3 months ago
Reply to  AnneW

I wholly agree

Dale Single
3 months ago
Reply to  Patriot Will

Did you know that there were about 3400 Black farming families in the Union that owned Black slaves?

Last edited 3 months ago by Dale Single
Phil Hammersley
3 months ago

We need to honor the memory of these dead soldiers and the ones who fought and survived to ensure our freedoms! Stand up against the Marxists of Antifa, BLM, and the DIMMwit party!

Dale Single
3 months ago

There many of exmilitary too old to take up arms for freedom, but are willing to stand if it comes to us!

Last edited 3 months ago by Dale Single
Brenda Blunt
3 months ago

Remember every Memorial Day!!

Stephen Russell
3 months ago

Must be told story each Memorial Day

Fred Loe
3 months ago

Excellent. How is it it we cannot forward articles from AMAC on email or Facebook to our friends.

Larry Taylor
3 months ago
Reply to  Fred Loe

You can. Simply copy and paste the URL to your Facebook page.

BAE
3 months ago
Reply to  Larry Taylor

I’m not on facebook…

2004done
3 months ago
Reply to  BAE

Me Neither, but the Rx works, even if you know better than to fill it using a “FB pharmacy.” (copy ^C and Paste ^V the URL to credit the “source”).

Laurie Bee
3 months ago

God save America and thank you to all Veterans.

2004done
3 months ago
Reply to  Laurie Bee

As I say EVERY Memorial Day “Thanks, but TODAY is the day to contemplate the Ultimate Sacrifice paid by servicemen who KNEW FREEDOM ISN’T ‘FREE,’ AND PAID WITH THEIR LIVES TO KEEP OUR FREEDOMS FOR ALL.”

Debbie Jo Mock
3 months ago

Excellent artical. Thank you very much AMAC. I live in Charleston a
nd love our now Hampton Park.

Hal
3 months ago

Had never heard that. Like a lot of other revisionist history.

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