National Holiday: The Real Story Behind Memorial Day

After Civil War battles, remains often were placed in mass graves. This 1863 photograph from the National Archives shows one of the unusual instances when coffins and individual graves were prepared following the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. Memorial Day began weeks after the Civil War ended in 1865, when thousands of freed slaves risked their lives to properly establish a cemetery in South Carolina.

MONDAY, MAY 31: Today, millions of Americans enjoy the company of family and friends in remembrance of sacrifices men and women made in the name of our freedom. Originally coined Decoration Day, the observance is a U.S. federal holiday and is a time to pay tribute especially by decorating the graves of those whose lives were lost in military service. This time of year, Americans often see news photos of volunteers moving through Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C., for example, decorating the long rows of graves.
This year, as you’ll learn later in this story, there is fresh controversy about where our President should honor our fallen soldiers on Memorial Day.
You’ll also learn today that this tradition actually began weeks after the Civil War ended—but this real story of Memorial Day only now is coming to light.

Real Story of Our “First” Memorial Day

Here’s why it’s important to remember—and spread word—about the real story of Memorial Day. Yale University historian David W. Blight undertook the groundbreaking research that is changing the way this milestone is understood. He published his findings in a 2002 history, “Race and Reunion.” Even the History Channel’s current “History of Memorial Day” video ignores the stirring 1865 chapter of U.S. history that Blight finally uncovered. (Over time, scholars expect that our collective “history” will be restored to include the 1865 event. Wikipedia’s version already includes this 1865 revision. Or, really this represents a restoration of the record.)

The first Memorial Day was marked by former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, who created proper, individual graves for fallen Union soldiers who had been buried en masse near a Confederate prison camp.  For most of the 20th century, however, the “first” Decoration or Memorial Day was credited to Waterloo, New York, mainly because the freed slaves of Charleston, South Carolina, didn’t have the connective clout enjoyed by the men promoting Waterloo’s ceremonies. News of the Charleston effort never spread across the U.S. and eventually vanished from our national memory. Of course, the Waterloo effort was noble, too, but its claim as our “first” now must be qualified as perhaps a “first in the North.”

According to Blight’s research: On May 1, 1865, 10,000 former slaves gathered at the cemetery site they had rebuilt and elaborately decorated in Charleston, South Carolina. Their courage is inspiring, because they were making a large-scale public demonstration of their love and respect for fallen Union soldiers—within weeks of the end of the war. Their brave actions easily could have brought their families into harm’s way from white neighbors who still strongly supported the defeated Confederacy.

Preparing for that first Memorial Day was an expensive, back-breaking effort in which a proper cemetery actually was built from the ground up by African-American volunteers prior to May 1. On a spiritual level, these freed slaves were intent on starting their new lives by literally digging up and reshaping a key part of their past. The site of this first Memorial Day, once a local race course, had been a Confederate prison camp where Union soldiers’ bodies were heaped in a mass grave. Volunteers prepared for May 1, 1865, by digging up the discarded remains, burying them properly, adding a wall around the cemetery, plus a proper arched entryway for visitors. The site, today, is Hampton Park. If you know Charleston, you’ll realize there is no Civil War cemetery there now. Eventually, these remains were moved again to a new U.S. national cemetery in Georgia.

The words “Memorial Day” were first used in 1882, although Memorial Day was not officially declared in federal law until 1967.

News About American Memorial Day 2010

The Indianapolis 500 has been a part of Memorial Day since 1911—and the Coca-Cola 600 also has been held each year, since 1961. The annual concert at the U.S. Capitol is also a tradition; get information and local TV listings, courtesy of PBS. Or, if you’re looking for patriotic music, veteran stories and more, visit the U.S. government’s Memorial Day site. Kids can find craft ideas at Kaboose.

Many customs continue; some change, including the U.S. President’s annual visit to Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C. President Obama has been urging Americans to mark Memorial Day by honoring all fallen soldiers and their families. He also has been urging Americans to focus on good deeds they can perform to observe the holiday. This year, Obama announced he will broaden his own observance by spending the day at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Chicago. Controversy surrounds this move, reported on by the Washington Post. Critics argue that Obama is dishonoring those buried at Arlington, while others applaud him for recognizing that Memorial Day pays tribute to all fallen soldiers, and not just those at Arlington. The president also asks citizens to honor Memorial Day’s spirit of service by ensuring that veterans and soldiers’ families have the support they need. (Read the full story in the Washington Post.)

This year’s Memorial Day also brings with it a milestone in military history: The Senate Armed Services Committee and the House recently voted to repeal the law that prohibits openly gay men and women from serving in the voluntary military. The bill will be considered by Senate next month.

Key Historical Evidence on Our First Memorial Day

NEVER HEARD THIS STORY BEFORE? Well, neither had many people in South Carolina, where Charleston Post & Courier writer Brian Hicks did a great job correcting history in this fascinating 2009 story.

Library of Congress preserves this photo taken in 1865 while the African-American reconstruction of the cemetery in Charleston was in progress. The rows of markers are newly established individual Union graves.IMPORTANT IN THE RESEARCH of Yale historian David W. Blight were newspapers from the 1860s. The following story comes from the Charleston Daily Courier, a popular daily in South Carolina at the time. (It later merged in 1873 with another newspaper.) In its heyday, the Daily Courier had a reputation for innovation and diversity perhaps partly because it was founded by a Northerner in 1803: Aaron Smith Willington, a newspaperman from Massachusetts. The newspaper carried overseas news, gathered by staffers who rowed out to meet arriving ships. The staff also included a Spanish translator to cover news from Cuba, Mexico and South America.
In May 1865, the newspaper covered the nation’s first Decoration or Memorial Day observance, held on May 1, 1865. The photo at right show the land where a former Confederate prison camp stood (also the site of a pre-Civil War race course). The photo shows work beginning on raising the remains in April 1865 in preparation for the new cemetery that eventually would include a wall, an archway entrance and properly buried remains.

Here is the Daily Courier coverage of that first Memorial Day, May 1, 1865 …

Original 1865 headline: “The Martyrs of the Race Course”

CHARLESTON, South Carolina—The ceremonies of the dedication of the ground where are buried two hundred and fifty-seven Union soldiers, took place in the presence of an immense gathering yesterday. Fully ten thousand persons were present, mostly of the colored population.

The ground had been previously laid out, the mounds of the graves newly raised, and a fine substantial fence erected around the enclosure by twenty-four colored men, “Friends of the Martyrs,” and members of the “Patriotic Association of Colored Men.” The exercises on the ground commenced with reading a Psalm, singing a hymn, followed by a prayer. The procession was formed shortly after nine o’clock, and made a beautiful appearance, nearly every one present bearing a handsome boquet of flowers. The colored children, about twenty-eight hundred in number, marched first over the burial ground, strewing the graves with their flowers as they passed.

After the children came the “Patriotic Association of Colored Men,” an association formed for the purpose of assisting in the distribution of the Freedmen’s supplies. These numbered about one hundred members. “The Mutual Aid Society,” an association formed for the purpose of burying poor colored people, about two hundred strong followed next. These were followed by the citizens generally, nearly all with boquets, which were also laid upon the graves. While standing around the graves the school children sung, “The Star Spangled Banner,” “America” and “Rally Rund the Flag,” and while marching, “John Brown’s Body, &c.” The graves at the close of the procession had all the appearance of a mass of roses. Among those present at the speaker’s stand inside the enclosure, were General Hartwell, Colonel Gurney, Colonel Beecher, Rev. Mr. Lowe, Mr. James Redpath and others.

The following letter from Admiral Dahlgren was received:
Charleston, My 1st, 1865.
Mr. James Redpath, General Superintendent of Education, &c:

Dear Sir—I am much obliged by the invitation to be present at the dedication of the ground for the interment of Union soldiers, but regret the demands of my time will prevent particularly as I expect my mail steamer to-day.
The object must have the best wishes of every lover of his country. We should never forget the gallant men who have laid down their lives for a great cause, but always keep their memory green.

I am, very truly, yours,
J.A. DAHLGREN, Rear Admiral

On the assembling of those within the enclosure around the speaker’s stand, Mr. James Redpath briefly announced the object of the gathering and the occasion. The assemblage was afterwards addressed by General Hartwell, Col. Beecher, Rev. Mr. Lowe, and several colored speakers, including Samuel Dickerson, Vanderhorst, Dart R. Duncan, Peter Miller, Magrath and others, about thirty in all.

During the exercises General Hartwell’s brigade, consisting of the 54th Massachusetts, 104th and 85th, colored regiments, appeared on the ground, and were reviewed by General Hartwell. They marched four abreast around the graves and afterwards went through all the evolutions of the manual.

Outside and behind the Race Course a picnic party was present with refreshments. The crowds dispersed, and returned to their homes about dusk.

(So ends the 1865 newspaper account.)

You can order David W. Blight’s “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory” from Amazon.

Tell Us What You Think at

(By ReadTheSpirit columnist Stephanie Fenton)

(NOTE: To see more short articles about upcoming holidays, festivals and anniversaries, click the “RTS Magazines” tab at the top of this page and select “Religious Holidays.”)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email