Merlene Davis: Remember and give thanks on Memorial Day

Union burial service notable

Herald-Leader columnistMay 26, 2013 

Memorial Day has always been the designated time we honor those who have given their lives in service to this country. Somewhere along the way, we also added friends and loved ones who had passed on as well by placing flowers on their graves.

I always thought the government was instrumental in getting us to be united in our efforts to commemorate fallen soldiers. But I've since learned that a couple of dozen cities have laid claim to hosting the original "Decoration Day," as Memorial Day was once known.

In 1868, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a group made up of Union veterans of the Civil War, issued an order to have flowers placed on the graves of more than 620,000 fallen Confederate and Union soldiers:

"The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated 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 churchyard in the land.

"In this observance, no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit."

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the birthplace of Memorial Day. Residents there began their observances in May 1866.

Still, many others honored the dead on their own and did it with flair.

Recent research by David W. Blight, a history professor at Yale University, reveals that in 1865, shortly after Charleston, S.C. surrendered to Union troops, a group of ex-slaves began an observance of their own. He uncovered the celebration while researching his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

The Confederacy had converted a racetrack in Charleston into an open-air prison camp for hundreds of Union soldiers, who were kept in appalling conditions. Records show 257 men died of disease and exposure and were buried in a mass grave near the grandstand.

Blight writes that 28 black workers went to the site after the war, dug up the remains and buried each one properly. Blight said they wanted to give honor to the men who had died trying to free them.

The workers then built a fence around the new cemetery, whitewashed it and built an archway with the words, "Martyrs of the Race Course" inscribed on it.

Then on May 1, 1865, about 10,000 people, ex-slaves, white missionaries and teachers, paraded around the racetrack. Children then placed flowers, wreaths and crosses on the graves.

New York Tribune and Harper's Weekly articles of that day said it was a procession never seen before in the state or the country.

The crowd then moved to the infield where they listened to speeches, enjoyed a picnic, and watched as a full brigade of Union infantry performed drills. Blight wrote that the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th U.S. Colored Troops performed a "special double-columned march around the gravesite."

Blight believes that was the first time Memorial Day was observed, even though it may not have been the start of a nationwide observance. Regardless, it definitely was one of the largest and it was held simply to honor those who given their lives to break the bondage of slavery.

Several years later, the soldiers were re-interred at Beaufort and Florence National Cemeteries in South Carolina without anything near the same fanfare.

Monday, as we honor those who gave their lives for our freedom, the least we can do is offer a sincere prayer of thanks.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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