Claim: Former slaves reburied dead Union prisoners of war in May 1865, thus creating the modern observance of Memorial Day.
|TRUE: In May 1865, free blacks in Charleston reburied dead Union prisoners of war and held a cemetery dedication ceremony.|
|UNDETERMINED: The event referenced above is the origin of the modern Memorial Day observance.|
Example: [Collected via e-mail, May 2013]
Memorial Day was started by former slaves on May, 1, 1865 in Charleston, SC to honor
Origins: The custom of holding observances (including the laying of flowers on burial sites) to remember and honor those who gave their lives in military service goes back many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In the United States, that custom has long since been formalized in the creation of Memorial Day (formerly known as Decoration Day), a federal holiday observed on the last Monday in May to remember the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Traditionally, every year the President of the United States (or, in his absence, another high-ranking government official) visits Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day to honor all those Americans who have died in military service to their country by participating in a symbolic wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
In a formal sense, the modern Memorial Day originated with an order issued in 1868 by
The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of
On May 5, 1866, the Village was decorated with flags at half mast, draped with evergreens and mourning black. Veterans, civic societies and residents, led by General Murray, marched to the strains of martial music to the three village cemeteries. There impressive ceremonies were held and soldiers' graves decorated. One year later, on
Waterloo held the first formal, village wide, annual observance of a day dedicated to honoring the war dead. On
On May 26, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson, signed a Presidential Proclamation recognizing Waterloo as the Birthplace of Memorial Day.
Yet each town seems to have different criteria: whether its ceremony was in fact the earliest to honor Civil War dead, or the first one that General Logan heard about, or the first one that conceived of a national, recurring day.
Women in Boalsburg, Pa., which has a claim as the holiday’s birthplace, began decorating graves each year as early as October 1864. In and around Carbondale, Ill., according to the Jackson County Historical Society, there are two markers making such an assertion in two different cemeteries.
This — readers, please take note — is just a partial and by no means definitive list.
As the story goes, one of the women spontaneously suggested that they decorate the graves of the Union as well as the Confederate dead, as each grave contained someone’s father, brother or son. A lawyer in Ithaca, N.Y., named Francis Miles Finch read about this reconciliatory gesture and wrote a poem about the ceremony in Columbus, "The Blue and the Gray," which The Atlantic Monthly published in 1867.
Georgians dispute little of this. But they argue that the procession in the other Columbus was actually inspired by the events in their Columbus.
Professor Richard Gardiner has lived here for only a few years, but he has joined with an accountant named Daniel Bellware, an avid history sleuth originally from Detroit, and together they have written an academic paper making the case for Columbus, Ga.
"The ladies of the South instituted this memorial day," read The
The "First Decoration Day," as this event came to be recognized in some circles in the North, involved an estimated ten thousand people, most of them black former slaves. During April, twenty-eight black men from one of the local churches built a suitable enclosure for the burial ground at the Race Course. In some ten days, they constructed a fence ten feet high, enclosing the burial ground, and landscaped the graves into neat rows. The wooden fence was whitewashed and an archway was built over the gate to the enclosure. On the arch, painted in black letters, the workmen inscribed "Martyrs of the Race Course."
At nine o'clock in the morning on May 1, the procession to this special cemetery began as three thousand black schoolchildren (newly enrolled in freedmen's schools) marched around the Race Course, each with an armload of roses and singing "John Brown's Body." The children were followed by three hundred black women representing the Patriotic
All dropped their spring blossoms on the graves in a scene recorded by a newspaper correspondent: "when all had left, the holy mounds — the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them — were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen; and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond ... there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy." While the adults marched around the graves, the children were gathered in a nearby grove, where they sang "America," "We'll Rally Around the Flag," and "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The official dedication ceremony was conducted by the ministers of all the black churches in Charleston. With prayer, the reading of biblical passages, and the singing of spirituals, black Charlestonians gave birth to an American tradition. In so doing, they declared the meaning of the war in the most public way possible — by their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade of roses, lilacs, and marching feet on the old planters' Race Course.
After the dedication, the crowds gathered at the Race Course grandstand to hear some thirty speeches by Union officers, local black ministers, and abolitionist missionaries. Picnics ensued around the grounds, and in the afternoon, a full brigade of Union infantry, including Colored Troops, marched in double column around the martyrs' graves and held a drill on the infield of the Race Course. The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration.
Last updated: 22 May 2015
Robertson, Campbell. "Birthplace of Memorial Day? That Depends Where You’re From." The New York Times. 26 May 2012. Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2001. ISBN 1-674-00332-2 (pp. 69-71).