Free Blacks and the Origin of Memorial Day

The first known observance of Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day) was in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865.

Freedmen (freed enslaved Africans) celebrated at the Washington Race Course, today the location of Hampton Park, and each year thereafter. African Americans founded Decoration Day at the graveyard of 257 Union soldiers and labeled the those Union soldiers buried there the “Martyrs of the Race Course” on May 1, 1865. Few remember that it was Black Charlestonians who created the American tradition of Memorial Day.

The friendship between General John Murray, a distinguished citizen of Waterloo, New York, and General John A. Logan, who helped bring attention to the event nationwide, was a strong factor in the holiday’s growth. On May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic — the organization for Northern Civil War veterans — Logan issued a proclamation that “Decoration Day” should be observed nationwide. It was observed for the first time on May 30 of the same year; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of a battle.

The Memorial Day speech became an occasion for veterans, politicians and ministers to commemorate the war dead — and at first to rehash the atrocities of the enemy. They mixed religion and celebratory nationalism and provided a means for the people to make sense of their history in terms of sacrifice for a better nation, one closer to God. The point was often made that the German and Irish soldiers had become true Americans in the “baptism of blood” on the battlefield. By the end of the 1870s the rancor was gone and the speeches praised the brave soldiers both Blue and Gray. By the 1950s, the theme was American exceptionalism and duty to uphold freedom in the world.

Ironton, Ohio lays claim to the nation’s oldest continuously running Memorial Day parade, it has been a tradition since 1868. The first parade was held May 5, 1868.

Searching in the 19th Century sources, like those in the Accessible Archives database, for information on Memorial Day will not turn up much information because the name Memorial Day did not come into common use nationwide until after World War I.

For The Grave Of An “Unknown” Soldier

DEAD soldier! though upon thy stone
I read the single word “Unknown,”
Westminster Abbey’s gorgeous gloom
Has never held a prouder tomb.

For, like a green triumphal arch,
This emerald hillock crowned thy march,
And thou hast disappeared beneath
To win an amaranthine wreath.

Thine humble sepulchre is where
No gaudy banners paint the air;
But Evening, with a dewy tear,
Will trail her shadowy pennons here.

And over this sequestered nook
The sky will wear a bluer look,
Long as Humanity will thrill
With Calvary and Bunker’s Hill.

“Unknown?” Alas, what eager feet
Have hastened thy return to greet,
Whenever in the porch were heard
The lilacs that the wind had stirred.

Half-mast, for him whose march is o’er,
The flag he never lowered before!
Such men are forming, as they die,
Legions of Honor in the sky.

And as I tune the solemn chord,
Triumphant undertones are poured,
As ‘neath a murmuring pine we hear
The roaring of a cataract near.

In every land by battle cursed
The laws of Nature are reversed,
And palsied Age unto the tomb
Bears Manhood in its ruddy bloom.

But, still, however black the skies
‘Neath which a murdered patriot dies,
A sunshine on his funeral sod
Falls like the golden smile of God.

Godey’s Lady’s Book— Louis Antoine Godey began publishing Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1830. He designed his monthly magazine specifically to attract the growing audience of literate American women. The magazine was intended to entertain, inform, and educate the women of America.

Collection: Godey’s Lady’s Book
Publication: Godey’s Lady’s Book
Date: May, 1871
Title: Decoration Day Garland. For The Grave Of An “Unknown” Soldier
Author: Clarence F. Buhler
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The First Decoration Day

It was in May of this year 1866 that we inaugurated, in Petersburg, the custom, now universal, of decorating the graves of those who fell in the Civil War.

Our intention was simply to lay a token of our gratitude and affection upon the graves of the brave citizens who fell June 9, 1864, in the defense of Petersburg, and upon the graves of her sons who perished in the assault upon Fort Steadman. These were buried in the cemetery of the old Blandford Church, then a roofless, ivy-clad ruin.

The church is one of the historic structures of the South, and it has a literature of its own among Virginians. One of the most striking of the poems concerning it was the following, found written with a pencil on the inner walls of the church many years ago.

The author is unknown, but Tyrone Power, the Irish comedian, is generally supposed to have been the writer:—

“Thou art crumbling to the dust, old pile!
Thou art hastening to thy fall;
And ’round thee in thy loneliness
Clings the ivy to the wall;
The worshippers are scattered now,
Who knelt before thy shrine,

From Reminiscences Of Peace And War by Mrs. Roger A. Pryor, author of The Mother of Washington and her Times

Flowers For The Brave

[Decoration Day , 1883]

Here bring your purple and gold,
Glory of color and scent!
Scarlet blue as the firmament.
Hushed is the sound of the fife
And the bugle piping clear;
The vivid and delicate life
In the soul of the youthful year
We bring to the quiet dead,
With a gentle and tempered grief;
O’er the mounds so mute we shed
The beauty of blossom and leaf.
The flashing swords that were drawn,
No rust shall their fame destroy!
Roughs rosy as rifts of dawn,
Like the blush on the cheek of joy,
Rich fires of the gardens and meads,
We kindle these above!
What splendor shall match their deeds?
What sweetness can match our love?

-Celia Thaxter

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s African American Newspapers Collection. This enormous collection of African American newspapers contains a wealth of information about cultural life and history during the 1800s and is rich with first-hand reports of the major events and issues of the day.

Collection: African American Newspapers
Date: May 31, 1883
Title: Flowers For The Brave

Top image:  Union prisoners burying ground, Charleston, S.C.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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