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Monday, May 26, 2014

Origins of Memorial Day

For many Americans, Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer, a long three day weekend where barbecue grills are fired up. Beach-goers eagerly head to the shoreline and fashionistas wear their white apparel for the first time. But for the patriotic, Memorial Day is a holiday where we celebrate soldiers who died for our Nation in battle. Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day in November, where we salute all surviving military personnel that served. 

The Holiday originally began to commemorate fallen soldiers of the Civil War. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, after World War I the holiday included the war dead from all American wars and became a federal holiday in 1971. Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday during the month of May. It was previously known as Decoration Day because of the tradition of decorating grave sites with fresh flowers.


Have you heard about the Charleston,SC origins of Memorial Day? Yale professor David W. Blight's findings has been widely disseminated over the past several years and you might have seen his essays lately. Here is what Professor Blight has reported about the first Memorial Day:

Thousands of black Charlestonians, most former slaves, remained in the city and conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events, and unknown until some extraordinary luck in my recent research, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters' horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, "Martyrs of the Race Course."
Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders' race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy's horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing "a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before." Excerpt from

Source: New York Times

Participating in the festivities were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th U.S.Colored Troops, who marched around the grave site. Professor Blight has authored many books on the American Civil War. His research sheds a compelling light on how the history of the enslaved African-Americans has been down-played and essentially ignored. Note the date of Charleston, SC celebration.
Another town claims to have originated Memorial Day. This town is located in the North, in Union territory. Waterloo, New York claims to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. The idea was conceived when:

 A prominent local druggist, Henry C. Welles, mentioned to some of his friends at a social gathering that while praising the living veterans of the Civil War it would be well to remember the patriotic dead by placing flowers on their graves.

 On May 5, 1866, the Village was decorated with flags at half mast, draped with evergreens and mourning black. Veterans, civic societies and residents, led by General Murray, marched to the strains of martial music to the three village cemeteries. There impressive ceremonies were held and soldiers' graves decorated. One year later, on May 5, 1867, the ceremonies were repeated. In 1868, Waterloo joined with other communities in holding their observance on May 30th, in accordance with General Logan's orders. It has been held annually ever since. (


On May 26, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson issued a Proclamation citing Waterloo, NY as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. His signing came shortly after the New York State Legislature named Waterloo as the town that created Memorial Day.

I then watched a video from Time Magazine dated May 25, 2014, that included the above mentioned birthplaces of Memorial Day. In the video, Columbus, GA and Columbus, MS both claim the birthplace of Memorial Day, along with a handful of other American cities. 

In any event,  Memorial Day is a time to pay tribute to our fallen soldiers.  Memorial Day 2014 will be special to one reader who stumbled upon my blog post " White Montford Point Marine Officers and Letter of Information 421." He had read his father's service papers earlier in the day where it stated that he was an Officer at Montford Point.  He discovered this amazing fact on Memorial Day Weekend:  His father made American history and could be eligible for a Congressional Medal of Honor.


What are your thoughts on all these Memorial Day origin stories? Do you have family members that you honor on Memorial Day?


The Origins of Memorial Day

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