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The First Memorial Day – A Story Almost Lost to History

Posted on Saturday, May 29, 2021
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by AMAC Newsline
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58 Comments
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“Be it remembered, however, that liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned, and bought it for us, at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood.”

-John Adams

As Americans mark the unofficial start of summer with cookouts, getaways, and time with family and friends this Memorial Day weekend, it can be easy to forget what the holiday is truly about—honoring the untold thousands of selfless patriots who have laid down their lives for our country in wartime.

So amid the merriment and jubilation we feel at the coming of summer following a long pandemic, let us take a few moments to remember what Memorial Day is all about. There is no better way to do so than to recall the unexpected story of the holiday’s origins—a story that holds important lessons for our country today.

While Memorial Day did not become an official federal holiday until 1971, its beginnings go all the way back to the immediate aftermath of the deadliest conflict in the history of our nation, the Civil War.

In Charleston, South Carolina, there was a horse racing track called the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club. During the Civil War, it was used by the Confederacy to imprison Union captives. Nearly 300 Union soldiers died of disease and exposure there while being held in the open-air prison. Their bodies were placed in a nearby mass grave.

But almost immediately after the war came to an end, emancipated slaves came to do honor to those soldiers who had given their lives so that millions formerly enslaved could know freedom. They exhumed the bodies of the fallen soldiers and gave them a proper burial in a new cemetery on the same site. On the whitewashed fence they erected around the cemetery, they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Weeks later, on May 1, 1865, a crowd of approximately 10,000 people—mostly freed slaves, and some white missionaries—gathered at the same spot. Veterans of the black 54th Massachusetts Regiment (the heroes of the 1989 film Glory, starring Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick, and Denzel Washington), and other black regiments were there, and performed double-time marches. Three thousand black children brought bouquets of flowers while they sang “John Brown’s Body,” a popular Union marching song inspired by the famous abolitionist John Brown. Black ministers were also present, and recited parts of the Bible.

This remarkable event was reported in The New York Tribune and The Charleston Courier, and has since been recognized as the earliest Memorial Day commemoration on record. The newspaper reports also spoke about how freed slaves organized the first Memorial Day observances at least a year before other American cities, and three years prior to the first national observance.

Today, Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Monday of every May. That first observance on May 1 was on a Monday as well. By the late 1860’s, many American towns and cities were making similar tributes. One of them was Waterloo, New York, which first celebrated Memorial Day on May 5, 1866—about a year after the emancipated slaves of South Carolina conducted their ceremony at the race track. On May 5, 1868, former Union General John A. Logan called for a national Memorial Day holiday. He actually called it “Decoration Day,” given that on that day observers would decorate the graves of the soldiers who had perished, just as the emancipated slaves had done. Logan suggested May 30 be the date of the holiday, given that no noteworthy battle took place on that day. “Decoration Day” gradually became known as “Memorial Day.”

In 1966, the federal government officially recognized Waterloo as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. But thanks to researchers who discovered the earlier story, historians now recognize that the holiday originated with those liberated black Americans in South Carolina, who came together to recognize the supreme sacrifice that so many had made to end the evil of slavery and secure their freedom.

Those who once lived in chains knew the value of what they honored on Memorial Day. Those of us who have never had to live in chains should honor the memory of countless American heroes who gave their lives to secure our own liberty all the more.

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Rhbook
Rhbook
2 years ago

We enjoyed clicking on the news broadcast so we could hear it instead of reading it!!!

Kathy
Kathy
2 years ago

My uncle was shot by a sniper during WWII. Although I never got to meet him, he was still a big part of my family because of his pictures and the reminiscences my Mother told about him. Thank you, Uncle Jim, and all who have made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom!!!!????????

Jerry
Jerry
2 years ago

I just loved the history lesson. So few in our country care or have been taught to not believe the goodness that is America, this story and so many others would be lost on them.I, unfortunately, know men to memorialize on this day and will do so with pride To my fellow veterans, THANK YOU for your service.

Brenda Lee
Brenda Lee
2 years ago

What an enlightening and heart warming article. We are a truly blessed country. It hasn’t always been easy. We’ve had our trials an tribulations but when the going is toughest we ban together and help our fellow humans. God bless America and all of the patriots that have gone before us. We need him now more than ever.

charles miley
charles miley
2 years ago

so grateful!

Paul
Paul
2 years ago

In November of 1971 while in the Army basic training I learned that American Citizens who work on a plantation got paid by script that could only be used at the company store. The American citizens workers were not allowed to be educated to read or learn math. If a nobody like me knows about this where in He** is the Federal Bureau of Investigation at to Protect American Citizens from 1971 to 2021? The Plantation was located in Louisiana. The young American Citizen was only saved by entering a United States military recruiting location in New Orleans and all of armed forces stood up for the American Citizen who just enlisted with the Army. The men chasing the young American Citizen with shot guns and blood hounds back out of the build.

Tom
Tom
2 years ago

Great article. Most young Americans have been dumbed down by the Leftists in the school systems and the Mainstream Media so that we can be divided and turn America into their Marxist Dream.

Gary
Gary
2 years ago

Thank You for this message of gratitude for those who willingly and ultimately died to preserve this Republic and for those whose hearts are forever grateful with true recognition of sacrifice oneself that others may live.

Bill on the Hill
Bill on the Hill
2 years ago

I found this piece quite interesting. The Civil War begins with the 1st shots fired in SC at Fort Sumpter. The 1st official Memorial Day begins in SC with the emancipated slaves giving those 300 souls a proper burial. Until now, I remained ignorant of this fascinating story that goes back to 1865…
Bill on the Hill… :~)

Bonnie
Bonnie
2 years ago

I like to think I’m a history buff, but I run across things like this that humble me and make me realize that I don’t know as much as I think I do. I am our family “genealogist” and I am proud that many of my ancestors were members of our great military. Thanks to all who gave everything to allow me to have freedom in the best country in the world!

Dean Brittain
Dean Brittain
2 years ago

I have heard this before, but only recently. It is really good to learn new verified historical events.

Bill Day
Bill Day
2 years ago

About to shower and ready myself for work…..BUT, I say I WANT
MY COUNTRY BACK. In the light of ‘free elections’ possibly disappearing
and short of an internal revolution, I see PRAYER as, perhaps, our
only ‘saving grace’. God Bless America !

Fairfield54
Fairfield54
2 years ago

My grateful thanks to all the men and women who laid down their life for me. I want to shake every hand and give a grateful hug to each one. Regardless of all of the nonsense going on right now, we still live in the greatest nation in the world. Evidenced by the men and women who are ready to lay their lives on the line to protect our freedoms. May God Bless each and everyone of them, and hold them in the palm of his hand.

Robert Clow
Robert Clow
2 years ago

This article was quite informative. As someone who’s family traces through Waterloo, NY. I was pleased to see the recognition that Waterloo is officially recognized as the founder of Memorial Day. Since 1866 a parade from downtown to the cemetery has happened. Initially by surviving members of the Grand Army of the Republic in the march while they were still able. Since then any veteran of America’s wars have been marching.
Robert Clow AMAC ACTION DELAGATE AZ#7

A Weber
A Weber
2 years ago

Very good article and I was surprised that we never knew about this event.

Chuck
Chuck
2 years ago

Rightfully honor the past. Bring that legacy forward and fight for our future. It’s going to take more than casting a ballot.

Hal
Hal
2 years ago

Had never heard that. Like a lot of other revisionist history.

Debbie Jo Mock
Debbie Jo Mock
2 years ago

Excellent artical. Thank you very much AMAC. I live in Charleston a
nd love our now Hampton Park.

Laurie Bee
Laurie Bee
2 years ago

God save America and thank you to all Veterans.

Fred Loe
Fred Loe
2 years ago

Excellent. How is it it we cannot forward articles from AMAC on email or Facebook to our friends.

Stephen Russell
Stephen Russell
2 years ago

Must be told story each Memorial Day

Brenda Blunt
Brenda Blunt
2 years ago

Remember every Memorial Day!!

Phil Hammersley
Phil Hammersley
2 years ago

We need to honor the memory of these dead soldiers and the ones who fought and survived to ensure our freedoms! Stand up against the Marxists of Antifa, BLM, and the DIMMwit party!

John fallon
John fallon
2 years ago

Just came from Memorial day observance, guest speaker read this story to the crowd, everyone should save this story and share it every Memorial Day, so no one ever forgets. Thank You to my fellow Veterans and “WELCOME HOME AND THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE”!!!!!!

America in decline
America in decline
2 years ago

If you’re going to make this about slavery, at least tell the truth. It was a constitutionally protected institution. The former British colonies entered the Union, some as slave states, some as free states. There was no requirement to enter. Each could have continued with their own domestic polices and functioned as independent nations. The federal government was a created entity designed to serve not rule over the states. It was not given “morality police powers.” Slavery could and should have been abolished by amending the constitution, NOT by use of a military coup that forever changed our form of government from a constitutional republic to an oligarchy. All Lincoln did was convert physical slavery into political repression of blacks, but now we are all servants of the federal oligarchs since the KKK Democrats/communists have run the country ever since. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Lincoln is celebrated as a hero, but nothing could be further from the truth. “Case law” has replaced judicial decisions based on the original intent of the founders, thus about 90% of the laws on the books are unconstitutional. We are a nation in rapid decline. All one has to do is look at the horrible policies that have been created by the filthy maggots in the congress and by the current administration who have thrown God in the back of the bus. I grieve because of the ignorance of American people. Waving a flag while ignoring historical revisionist lies that portray Lincoln as a hero is both sad and repulsive.

Phoebe Haigler
Phoebe Haigler
2 years ago

Wonderful story
I’m so grateful that you shared this history as I wasn’t aware of it.

BAE
BAE
2 years ago

Yes, honor to the soldiers and their families. Great men and women!

Hal
Hal
2 years ago

Indeed, as US citizens we should definitely honor our service men including those in the distant past who fought to keep America and its allies strong from being overtaken by WW II Japanese and WWII Nazi Germany, who tried to enslave many other Nations to their will. Also, we should as Americans honor those men who served in the Viet Nam War, altho even today I think it was a Democrat contrived war to jack up the economy and distract American citizens from many homeland issues at the time. All Americans who served in past Wars deserve our heartfelt thanks, even those that served in the lesser conflicts, some of which were questionable as to its basis for US actions.

AnneW
AnneW
2 years ago

That was a moving story which I had never heard before. I wonder whether any of the freed slaves who went to the Racetrack to honor the dead soldiers believed that the dead men had to be racists because they were white. I think not. They honored those dead soldiers because they fought for freedom from slavery. We need to find a way to eliminate today’s animosity between the races and come together into a united country once again. We owe it to all those who died in every war in which the United States was involved as they fought for freedom for every American.

A N Love joy
A N Love joy
2 years ago

Not the whole truth.

JohnH
JohnH
2 years ago

Thank you for the very interesting history lesson.

CAB
CAB
2 years ago

Sadly, to the victor belongs history.

Dale Single
Dale Single
2 years ago

Did you know that there were about 3400 Black farming families in the Union that owned Black slaves?

vim
vim
2 years ago

See that your state legislators join C (convention) of S (states). If they are unaware of that, tell them to google it!! That’s the way to reign in the federal government. Check it out for yourselves. This article by AMAC is beautiful, and should be spread, our ability to do that is like it has never been before. Stop name calling and do something that is productive. That’s my opinion!!

William Hicks
William Hicks
2 years ago

I knew that our present “Memorial Day ” originated in the South.
As Mr. Paul Harvey said, “And here’s the rest of the story”.

Garye
Garye
2 years ago

God Bless America, all its Patriots and those who gave their lives for us to be free.
We the People owe them everything, let’s keep Our Country free.

Ron Howard
Ron Howard
2 years ago

All who served should be honored. All who served performed their duties contributing to our freedom, as did those who died.

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