Monday, May 30, 2011

The First Memorial Day

David Blight is Yale professor of history who specializes in the study of the civil war era. In today's New York Times, he tells the story of the first memorial day which was celebrated in Charleston, South Carolina.

In the last year of the war, a race track in Charleston was used as an open air prison for union soldiers where more than 200 died and were buried in a mass grave. When the confederates evacuated the city, the newly freed people of Charleston reburied the dead properly and erected a high fence around the new cemetery. On May 1, 1865, they held a parade and ceremony at the site.

The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.

After the dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.

I now have a reason to celebrate memorial day. Aside from enjoying a long weekend and an opportunity to have a little more time for fun, I hate this holiday. I hate the celebration of war and death and the implied mandate to have more of both. The first memorial day was a commemoration of America's only good war, the war which killed chattel slavery.

Blight has once again done a great service to history lovers with his research. In 2008 he gave a series of lectures on the war and reconstruction which are available for free download. They are indispensable to anyone interested in that period of American history.

Happy memorial day.