Memorial Day

There are several memes circulating on the internet as to the origin of Memorial Day.  From Wikipedia and Snopes it appears to have its origins in May 1868 when Major General John Logan, leader of Grand Army of the Republic (an organization for Union Civil War veterans) established Decoration Day as a day to decorate the graves of the dead with flowers.  Observations were held at 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868.

Michigan made “Decoration Day” an official holiday in 1871 and by 1890 every northern state had followed suit.  It became a national holiday in 1971.

Flickr Photo (CC): Doug Kerr, Waterloo, New York

There are earlier observances of Memorial Day, in fact Waterloo, New York is officially recognized by the U.S. government as having had the first official Memorial Day celebration and is home to the National Memorial Day Museum.

One Meme circulating links the origin of Memorial Day to a celebration in Charleston, South Carolina only days before the end of the Civil War in 1865.  In Charleston, which had surrendered on February 18, 1865, there was a prisoner of war camp at Hampton Park Race Course where approximately 257 Union soldiers had been buried in unmarked graves.

In April 1865, 28 African-American citizens landscaped the graves into rows, built a fence enclosing the burial ground along with an archway enscribed Martyrs of the Race Course.” On May Day approximately 10,000 came out for the dedication of the burial ground by ministers from the black churches dedicated the grounds.  As one historian noted,

With prayer, the reading of biblical passages, and the singing of spirituals, black Charlestonians gave birth to an American tradition. In so doing, they declared 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.

The dedication was followed by some thirty speeches by Union officers, local black ministers, and abolitionist missionaries. The graves were later moved to Beaufort National Cemetery, where with an Irish immigrant, Eliza Potter, had an obelisk built in their honor which read, ‘IMMORTALITY TO HUNDREDS OF THE DEFENDERS OF AMERICAN LIBERTY AGAINST THE GREAT REBELLION.’

There is no dispute that this event happened, it is just disputed that its occurrence led in any way to Memorial Day as we know it today.

Nonetheless, I like the story because of its expression of gratitude for those who gave their last ounce of devotion to our nation and our freedom.

Over the course of our history, approximately 1,354,664 servicemen and women have been killed which spread out across the population (77,538,296 families) roughly means that for every 57 people can claim a familial link to this sacrifice.  So at your typical Dodgers game, about 1,000 people there can claim this link and on this day we honor and express gratitude for their sacrifice.




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