The history of American Memorial Day is changing—right before our eyes. Most history books don’t have the updated version yet, which dates to a landmark 2002 book by historian David W. Blight. Some historical accounts have been updated since 2002.
Do you know this updated—actually this restored—version of our history? Do you know when our first Memorial Day took place? Why? Where? Who honored which fallen soldiers?
I didn’t and most Americans didn’t throughout the entire 20th century. The memory had been lost in time. That is until Blight, professor of American history at Yale University, recovered the memory for all of us.
Today, I’m asking you:
Have you heard this news already? What do you think about Blight’s restoration of the record? What does this say about America and Americans? How could we “lose” this history for at least 100 years?
Today, the real history of Memorial Day, once known as Decoration Day, is the top article in the main ReadTheSpirit website. Blight’s discovery is a remarkable piece of historical detective work. The first clue he found actually was something written by a Union soldier about the first Decoration Day. This important puzzle piece was not cataloged in the archives so its existence was unknown for over 140 years. With this clue in hand, Blight went digging. He finally found the 1865 article in the Charleston newspaper headlined, “Martyrs of the Race Course”—then he further documented this entire missing chapter in our history. (You can read the text of that 1865 newspaper account in ReadTheSpirit today.)
Here’s a summary of what happened in 1865: The first Memorial Day took place in April 1865, soon after the end of the Civil War. The place was Charleston. And it was led by former slaves to honor hundreds of Union soldiers who had died in a Confederate prison camp. The soldiers were not given proper burials, so the former slaves disinterred them and reburied them properly. Then, a full-day event took place, honoring the fallen soldiers. Over 10,000 former slaves participated. Today, we honor veterans and soldiers who fought and died mostly in foreign lands. The first Memorial Day, however, was to honor soldiers who died in their own country, fighting to reunite a divided land.
What does this story of the first Memorial Day mean to you?
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(Originally posted in www.OurValues.org)