How Memorial Day began and how it was transformed

Sadly, many people — especially younger folks — don't even know why we celebrate Memorial Day, let alone how and where the commemoration began.  It is an interesting and moving story, indeed.

The roots of the remembrance reach back to Civil War days.  As the war that took the lives of 620,000 Americans neared its end, thousands of Union soldiers, being held as prisoners of war, were placed into camps around Charleston, South Carolina.  Conditions at one of these camps, a former racetrack near Charleston's Citadel, were so bad that more than 250 prisoners died from disease and exposure.  They were buried in a mass grave.

Three weeks after the Confederate surrender, on May 9, 1865, over 1,000 recently freed slaves, accompanied by regiments of the "U.S. Colored Troops," as well as a handful of white Charlestonians, entered the camp.  They created a proper burial site for the Union dead.  Then they gave readings, sang hymns, distributed flowers around the new cemetery, and dedicated it to the "Martyrs of the Race Course."

In May of 1868, General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans' group, issued a decree that May 30 should become a nationwide day of commemoration for the soldiers who had died in the recently ended Civil War, also known as the War between the States.  General Logan dubbed this official remembrance "Decoration Day" and encouraged Americans to lay flowers and decorate the graves of the war dead across the land.  Many believe that he chose May 30 because it was a rare day that didn't fall on an anniversary of a major Civil War battle.

Originally, the holiday was intended to commemorate only those killed in the Civil War, and by 1890, every former Union state recognized Decoration Day as an official holiday.  After the United States entered World War I, the tradition was expanded to include those killed in all America's wars.

In 1964, Decoration Day was changed to Memorial Day via federal law.

Then, four years later, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 went into effect.  This moved the traditional Memorial Day observance from May 30 to the last Monday in May, thereby making Americans associate the holiday with the first long weekend of summer.  Partying, boating, barbecuing, and game-playing, rather than honoring those who sacrificed their lives to benefit and protect ours, became the order of the day.  For this reason, a few veterans' groups continue to lobby for a return to the May 30 observance.

So, fellow citizens, this Memorial Day, remember to turn the music off for a moment, stop your boat, set down your tongs, and step away from the ladder ball game.  Think of those who gave their lives for all their loved ones and countrymen — and one precious idea.

And think of those 1,000 freed slaves, the U.S. Colored Troops, and the handful of white Charlestonians who took it upon themselves to consecrate a burial ground for fallen Union soldiers.

Then raise your glasses and make this pledge with me: 

[T]hat from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

This nation needs a new birth of freedom now more than at any time since Lincoln spoke these words in 1863.

And it will not experience one unless we each do our part.  No matter the cost.

Photo credit: United States Government.

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