Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer, conjuring images of picnics, barbecues or just a lazy day off. But originally the holiday was charged with deeper meaning — and with controversy.
The exact origins of Memorial Day are disputed, with at least five towns claiming to have given birth to the holiday sometime near the end of the Civil War. Yale University historian David Blight places the first Memorial Day in April 1865, when a group of former slaves gathered at a Charleston, S.C., horse track turned Confederate prison where more than 250 Union soldiers had died. Digging up the soldiers' mass grave, they interred the bodies in individual graves, built a 100-yd. fence around them and erected an archway over the entrance bearing the words "Martyrs of the Race Course."
On May 1, 1865, some 10,000 black Charleston residents, white missionaries, teachers, schoolchildren and Union troops marched around the Planters' Race Course, singing and carrying armfuls of roses. Gathering in the graveyard, the crowd watched five black preachers recite scripture and a children's choir sing spirituals and "The Star-Spangled Banner." While the story is largely forgotten today, some historians consider the gathering the first Memorial Day.
While I don't have a Civil War ancestor (that I know about) who died in that war, I'm an avid historian and researcher. I've had a couple of in-depth articles published in The Gettysburg Magazine focusing on both of the extreme ends of the Confederate line: papers on the 47th Alabama (at Little Round Top) and the 10th Virginia (at Culp's Hill).
The American Civil War was a big deal. A BIG deal, and most people today don't really know that. To honor the dead of that war is exactly what Lincoln was saying in what came to be known was the Gettysburg Address:
We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
So, take a moment and think about the sacrifice of ordinary people, who were as real as you and me, whose deaths over 150 years ago mattered, as all deaths matter, while we are enjoying our holiday.