Memorial Day: The History You May Not Know

USCT

United State Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) in Charleston from the April 1, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly Glory

Memorial Day Memorial Day is a federal holiday for remembering the men and women who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. The first widely publicized observance of a Memorial Day was after the Civil War in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865. During the war, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Charleston Race Course; at least 257 Union prisoners died there and were hastily buried in unmarked graves. Together with teachers and missionaries, black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers.

The freedmen cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Nearly ten thousand people, mostly black freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the war dead. Involved were about 3,000 school children newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, black ministers, and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field. Today the site is used as Hampton Park.Years later, the celebration would come to be called the “First Decoration Day” in the North.

Historian David W. Blight described the day:

“This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”

Copying an earlier holiday that had been established in the Southern states, on May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans’ organization for Union Civil War veterans, General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide. It was observed for the first time that year on Saturday May 30; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. According to the White House, the May 30 date was chosen as the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom.

The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day”, which was first used in 1882.

On May 26, 1966, President Johnson signed a presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Earlier, the 89th Congress adopted House Concurrent Resolution 587, which officially recognized that the patriotic tradition of observing Memorial Day began one hundred years prior in Waterloo, New York.

The Village of Waterloo credits druggist Henry Welles with the idea for the observance, which he made known to some of his friends in 1865. The following spring he partnered with General John B. Murray and a local citizens committee to organize the May 5, 1866 event. Veterans, civic societies and residents all marched to the three village cemeteries to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. They repeated the observance in 1867, but in 1868 they joined with other communities that followed General Logan’s orders, and held their observance on May 30.

Memorial Day became more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967.

On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress’ change of date within a few years.

On Memorial Day, the flag of the United States is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon. It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day.

Primary sources: Wikipedia, White House, Library of Congress, History.com

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