Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Who Invented Memorial Day, and When?

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

An April 1865 photo shows the graves of Union soldiers who perished at the Race Course prison camp in Charleston, S.C. On May 1, 1865, thousands of former slaves gave the fallen men an elaborate funeral. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Many communities lay claim to Memorial Day, but surely — in some sense — its beginnings sprang from a nearly universal human reaction to the terrible death and bloodshed of the American Civil War.

For more on the tradition, I recommend this great roundup from The Center for Civil War Research — at the University of Mississippi — on the origins of what was known early on as Decoration Day:

“The enormity of human pain and death associated with the Civil War, unprecedented in so many ways, inspired equally novel responses. Most significant among these was the creation of Memorial Day, an annual national holiday urging citizens to decorate the graves of their soldier dead and observe a day of solemn reflection in gratitude and remembrance.

“So widespread was the impulse to honor the war dead that observances occurred spontaneously in several locations, unbidden by any political or military authority.

“Because the need was so great, and because so many responded in similar ways, these numerous early ceremonies tend to blur the origins of this now national tradition.”

The center’s piece includes these two especially interesting quotations from period accounts and memoirs:

13/16? April 1862, Arlington Heights, Virginia

“On the sixteenth of April, 1862, some ladies and a chaplain from Michigan were chatting together at Arlington Heights. They were talking about the horrors of the war and one lady said: ‘How lonely and cheerless the bare graves of the soldiers look.’ Another proposed gathering some flowers and laying them on the graves of the Michigan soldiers that day. They did so, — and the next year they decorated the same graves. The third year [1864] the same chaplain and ladies were in Fredericksburg, and they decorated the soldiers’ graves there. So the beautiful custom grew and spread its influence with its flowers each year.”

– M. W. A., “Memorial Day,” The Teachers’ Institute 18 (April 1896): 191.

And, as was mentioned very briefly in an article in today’s Free Lance-Star:

1 May 1865, Charleston, South Carolina

“On May-day I told all the colored children of the free schools of Charleston to go out to the Race Course with bouquets of roses and other sweet-smelling flowers, and throw them on the graves of our martyrs. Nearly three thousand children went out, and perhaps double that number of grown-up people. The children marched from the Race Course singing the John Brown Song, and then, silently and reverently, and with heads uncovered, they entered the burial ground and covered the graves with flowers. Afterwards they went to the fields near by and sang the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ ‘America,’ and ‘Rally Round the Flag.’

“This is how the colored children spent May-day in Charleston. It was the first free May-day gathering they had ever enjoyed.”

– Uncle James [James Redpath], “Eye and Ear Notes: May-Day in Charleston, S.C.,” The Youth’s Companion 38 (1 June 1865): 86.

The Club House at Charleston's Race Course, where some Union officers were confined in the Civil War prison camp. (GEORGE N. BARNARD/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)