As we move into Memorial Day weekend, it is important to consider why we have this holiday. The weekend tends to be full of sales, an automobile race, and backyard parties …with the occasional parade thrown in for good measure. We have a number of these holidays, which call on us to be respectful and to remember where we came from and how we got here. Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and July 4th are four of the big examples.
For thousands of years humans have found ways to remember those lost to them, whether from age, illness, accident or war. Remembrance days are found in every culture. In this country, Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who have died while serving in the military, while Veterans Day evolved from Armistice Day to remember all those who have served in our nations military, living or dead.
Memorial Day here started in the post Civil War era as Decoration Day. The first instance here came with the end of the Civil War and the deaths of some 257 Union soldiers who died of illness in a prison camp in Charleston South Carolina due to poor conditions. The camp was located at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club.. Charleston fell to the Union. The first soldiers into the city were from the 21st United States Colored Infantry. The whites had mostly fled Charleston, but thousands of blacks remained. The short form of the story is that the black soldiers and black Charlestonians ended up, among other things, digging up the mass grave where those Union soldiers had been buried and created a formal cemetery there..
They fenced off the cemetery, whitewashed the fence, and built an arch over the entrance. They paid tribute to those fallen soldiers as the Martyrs of the Race Course. The tribute included a parade of about 10,000 mourners, comprising blacks, whites, thousands of children carrying roses, teachers, missionaries and local citizens. They sang songs, decorated the graves with flowers, wreaths, and crosses. Picture that if you can… the group including freed slaves, marching in a parade on the racetrack that once was a symbol of the prestige, power, wealth and indolence of the whites prior to the war.
Major General John Logan became the commander of the veterans group of the Union Army, and in 1968 declared that May 30 would be Decoration Day, when Americans should decorate the graves of the war dead and lay flowers in memory. As an interesting piece of information, General Logan served in Congress both before and after the Civil War. He became one of just 33 people to have lain in state under the Capitol Rotunda. This rare honor went to a man who was a true champion of military veterans during his life and founded the holiday we use to pay respects to those who have died in the service of the country.
As Decoration Day evolved,. the idea spread quickly, with every state accepting it as a holiday by 1890. Memorial Day continued to be tied to remembering the deaths of those soldiers who fell in the Civil War for over 50 years, and finally was changed to become a day of remembrance for all fallen American soldiers, in all wars, during the first World War. Interestingly, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30 until 1968, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect, making Memorial Day the last Monday in May. In 1971 Memorial Day, 103 years old, finally became a Federal holiday.
And here we are this weekend. Memorial Day 2018 is right around the corner. Remember how and why we are here and why we have this holiday. Enjoy the weekend with friends and family. Remember those who made it possible for us to be here because they gave everything for us. Tilt one back in memory as you celebrate… and remember.