“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.”
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.