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The First Memorial Day

Memorial Day had other names in earlier times such as Decoration Day and American All Saints Day (which has been recognized as being similar to early European Catholic traditions in which entire towns marched to churchyards in honor of their dead). Citizens were urged to decorate the graves of their lost soldiers and dedicate the day to “solemn reflection in gratitude and remembrance” in observance and respect for lost warriors. Several places around the United States claim to have had the honor of the first official observance, but the call to display respect for our fallen soldiers was so great and spontaneous across the nation that it has been hard to pin down who was actually the first to do so. People decorated graves with flowers to show that even in death new life can bloom; there were parades to honor deceased loved ones; and, later when these festivities became more “official” there were speeches given by leaders in the armed forces and government.

Photos depicting the role of African Americans and Memorial Day
African American Civil War Memorial

The New York Times wrote: “At the end of the Civil War, Americans faced a formidable challenge: how to memorialize 625,000 dead soldiers, Northern and Southern…if the same number of Americans per capita had died in Vietnam as died in the Civil War, four million names would be on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, instead of 58,000.” When you stop to think about it, if you have ever visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, this thought is completely overwhelming! (New York Times).

At the planters' horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, a crude outdoor prison had been set up for the Union prisoners of war where a “burial ground” was later discovered (Blue Street Journal). David Blight (Yale) discovered lost archives at Harvard University that uncovered the facts surrounding this unconscionable account of events. In Charleston, during the final year of the Civil War, those Union war captives were kept in the interior of the track in horrible conditions. A minimum of 257 are known to have died of disease and were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Once the Confederates evacuated Charleston, black workmen went to the site, dug up and then reburied the Union dead properly, building built a high fence around the cemetery with an archway over the entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

David Blight, professor at Yale University wrote, “At the end of the Civil War the dead were everywhere, some in half buried coffins and some visible only as unidentified bones strewn on the killing fields of Virginia or Georgia. Americans, north and south, faced an enormous spiritual and logistical challenge of memorialization. The dead were visible by their massive absence. Approximately 620,000 soldiers died in the war. American deaths in all other wars combined through the Korean conflict totaled 606,000. If the same number of Americans per capita had died in Vietnam as died in the Civil War, 4 million names would be on the Vietnam Memorial. The most immediate legacy of the Civil War was its slaughter and how remember it” (

May 1, 1865 was the first “Memorial Day” parade on that race track in South Carolina honoring martyred soldiers that a New York Tribune reporter witnessed as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.” According to, the morning the procession began at 9 a.m. as three thousand black school children (newly enrolled in freedmen's schools) each with armloads of roses marched around the Race Course singing "John Brown's Body" and were followed by three hundred black women carrying baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses (they represented the Patriotic Association which organized the distribution of clothing and goods to freedpeople). Next, Marching “in cadence” was the Mutual Aid Society (a benevolent association of black men) who were followed by large crowds made up of white and black citizens together. The children had moved to a nearby grove and sang "America the Beautiful," "We'll Rally Around the Flag," and "The Star-Spangled Banner" (see the photo from The Blue Street Journal).

The “official dedication ceremony” was conducted by ministers from black churches in Charleston offering prayer, the reading of biblical passages, and the singing of spirituals, and declaring “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.” This ceremony gave birth to an American tradition ( that would be the first of many in decades and centuries to follow -- this year 2014 marking the 149th year of these parades (

In 1868 Memorial Day officially came out in the North when the Union Veterans’ Organization (or the Grand Army of the Republic) asked neighborhood communities to host grave-decorating ceremonies. “Yankee” Memorial Day speeches often focused on efforts to save the Union and end slavery, honoring both the North and the South but still laying out the “war guilt” about what they referred to as their “rebel dead.”

In the South it was different because Memorial Day was a way of bringing the Confederacy’s defeat back to the surface and using it as a way to stress Christian notions of “noble sacrifice” vindicating Confederate notions and reminding the public of those “assertions of white supremacy” (David Blight). African Americans were only seen as “time-warped loyal slaves” who would “remain frozen in the past” according to the Confederate’s view of who mattered in the story of the Civil War. The southerners honored their dead as “true patriots” and as defenders of their homeland having sovereign rights, also citing their “natural racial order” and always denying their defeat on the battlefields (NYTimes).

“Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11.” President Johnson declared Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day because it was the first state to officially recognize the holiday in 1873.

Memorial Day is in honor of those who died serving our country and protecting our freedom.


Decoration Day parade in Texas, 1916, Photo CREDIT: Runyon, Robert, photographer. “Decoration Day Parade, 1916,” 1916. The Center for American History and General Libraries, University of Texas at Austin. Reproduction Number 01326. Photo

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