Another Charleston First – Memorial Day

Wow, it’s hard to believe that this weekend is the official start of summer. Not only is it that but more importantly is a time to honor all those that have died serving our Country. The tradition of remembering those who lost their lives while defending their country and its beliefs began here in Charleston. It is estimated that 752,000 men perished in the Civil War. During the war, women would bury the dead and decorate their graves but it was not until May 1, 1865 when a group of freed slaves got together to honor a large group of Union Soldiers. The Hampton Race Track had been used as a Confederate Prison Camp and a mass grave was dug on-site for the Union Soldiers that died within the camp. After the war was over, freed slaves exhumed the bodies and reinterred them in individual graves. A crowd of up to ten thousand (mainly blacks) came together to honor those soldiers. A day of sermons, singing and picnicking ensued. This day was given the name of “Decoration Day”. Officially in 1966 Waterloo, a town in New York was given credit for the start of this holiday because on May 5, 1866 all businesses closed for the day and the community held a city-wide event in which residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags. (I personally think the federal government needs to revisit this decree.)

In 1868, General John Logan officially proclaimed that Decoration Day should be observed nationwide. The day was carefully chosen to be May 30, a date that was not an anniversary of any battle. Flowers were placed on graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

This day of remembrance which was declared by a “Yankee” did not sit well with the South. They refused to acknowledge this day and would honor their dead on Confederate Memorial Day. Southern states would choose their own day but usually the dates ranged from April 26 to mid June. In South Carolina, May 10th was selected. This was the date that Stonewall Jackson died in 1863 and the date of the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in 1865.

For both sides this day originally started out as a way for veterans and families to remember those that had been lost privately. As time went along it was a way for veterans, ministers and politicians to commemorate the War but also to rehash the atrocities of the enemy. By the end of the 1870’s much of the malice had subsided and soldiers from both sides were praised. Though in the South, the Confederate dead were still honored on a separate day until after World War I when the holiday was changed from honoring those who died in the Civil War to those who died in all American wars. At that time, the day came to represent the American ideals and the duty to uphold freedom in the world.

Today 9 Southern states still officially observe Confederate Memorial Day: Alabama, Florida , Georgia,Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina , South Carolina , Tennessee , and Texas.

The name “Decoration Day” stayed until the early 1880’s and then it slowly changed to “Memorial Day”. It was not until after WWII that it become common to call the holiday “Memorial Day” and it was not officially declared that until 1967.

I want to thank all of those who have served and lost their lives. Especially, I want to thank their families. Your loved ones have given us the greatest thing of all, freedom and we will never forget their sacrifices.

Have a wonderful Memorial Day.

Thanks for reading

Lee Ann


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