The African-American roots and Civil War origins of Memorial Day

Black Regiment - Civl War

The men of Company E, 4th United States Colored Infantry. Theirs was one of the detachments assigned to guard the nation's capital during the American Civil War. Photo circa 1864. (Source: United States Library of Congress. Public domain photo)

Memorial Day is meant to be the day the nation honors its war dead. For many Americans, it has also become a day to throw barbecues and beach parties, for blockbuster movies to open, and for students to prepare for graduation and prom season; all signaling the unofficial start of summer. But few Americans are aware of the holiday’s roots in the Civil War’s aftermath, and of the heavy influence of African-Americans in the early celebrations of what used to be called Decoration Day.

On May 1, 1865, freed slaves gathered in Charleston, South Carolina to commemorate the death of Union soldiers and the end of the American Civil War. Three years later, General John Logan issued a special order that May 30, 1868 be observed as Decoration Day, the first Memorial Day — a day set aside “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land.”

At the time, the nation was reunited politically, but it remained culturally divided, and so did Memorial Day observations. In the North, the federal government created national cemeteries for men who died in the war, while state governments from New York to Michigan gradually made Decoration Day an official holiday throughout the 1870s. In the South, from April to June, women dressed in white and knelt beneath statues of fallen Confederate leaders; they told stories about the men who appeared in portraits lining the walls of many Southern homes. By the early 20th century, as Americans faced enemies abroad, many of the surviving Civil War veterans recognized their shared wartime history and reconciled their differences — turning Memorial Day into a national holiday.

From Yale University historian David W. Blight:

At the end of the Civil War the dead were everywhere, some in half buried coffins and some visible only as unidentified bones strewn on the killing fields of Virginia or Georgia. Americans, north and south, faced an enormous spiritual and logistical challenge of memorialization. The dead were visible by their massive absence. Approximately 620,000 soldiers died in the war. American deaths in all other wars combined through the Korean conflict totaled 606,000. If the same number of Americans per capita had died in Vietnam as died in the Civil War, 4 million names would be on the Vietnam Memorial. The most immediate legacy of the Civil War was its slaughter and how remember it.

War kills people and destroys human creation; but as though mocking war’s devastation, flowers inevitably bloom through its ruins. After a long siege, a prolonged bombardment for months from all around the harbor, and numerous fires, the beautiful port city of Charleston, South Carolina, where the war had begun in April, 1861, lay in ruin by the spring of 1865. The city was largely abandoned by white residents by late February. Among the first troops to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the Twenty First U. S. Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the formal surrender of the city.

Thousands of black Charlestonians, most former slaves, remained in the city and conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events, and unknown until some extraordinary luck in my recent research, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters’ horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

At 9 am on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathering in the cemetery enclosure; a childrens’ choir sang “We’ll Rally around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. No record survives of which biblical passages rung out in the warm spring air, but the spirit of Leviticus 25 was surely present at those burial rites: “for it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you… in the year of this jubilee he shall return every man unto his own possession.”

Following the solemn dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: they enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches, and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantry participating was the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th U.S. Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite. The war was over, and Decoration Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been all about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic, and not about state rights, defense of home, nor merely soldiers’ valor and sacrifice. …

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