When or where the day memorializing those who served in the military began in the United States is unknown. According to many, it was initially known as Decoration Day, following the Civil War, when General John J. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic declared it as a time to remember the war dead by decorating their graves with flowers. In 1966, Congress and President Johnson claimed Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. The following year, it was made a national holiday observed on May 30 until 1971 when Congress assigned the last Monday in May as the day of observance.
We will never really know the true birthplace of Memorial Day because history is often a mix of told and untold stories. Some histories of Decoration Day are hidden or ignored by times, circumstances and denial. As change occurs and America evolves, those overlooked histories slowly emerge. Here is one reemerging history of Decoration Day.
According to newspaper articles and historian David Blight in his book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Caroline, where the Civil War began, the first Decoration Day took place. The city was in ruin and the 21st United States Colored Infantry were among the first Union soldiers to accept the city’s official surrender. After the siege, a group of former slaves gathered at a former racetrack used by Confederates as a prison where more than 250 Union soldiers died and were buried in a mass grave. The freedmen dug up the unmarked grave, put each soldier in separate graves, cleaned the area, built a fence around it, and erected an archway over the entrance that read, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” They created a fitting gravesite. They also held a parade with 10,000 people–mostly blacks, white missionaries, teachers, 3,000 children and Union troops–marching around the Planters’ Race Course carrying flowers and singing. Gathered at the graveyard, black preachers delivered scriptures. For the former slaves, the purpose of that day in Charleston was to honor and celebrate the Union Army soldiers who died to end slavery and deliver freedom. “A procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before,” is how the event was described by a reporter from the New York Tribune who witnessed it.
Amid ruin, flowers can bloom. Today, the country is united in commemorating all soldiers equally who sacrifice and die so everyone can live free.