I forgot this existed some time ago, but a friend reminded me today. Here’s David Blight on the first Memorial Day. The very, very short version is that black Americans appear to have invented Memorial day. You can find Blight’s whole course here. The individual lectures have pretty good transcripts available on their respective pages. If the video isn’t your thing, here’s the relevant part from the transcript:
And the very night of that ceremony, which was the 14th of April, they held a banquet of a sort in a building that had a roof on it, back in Charleston, and that was the very night, of course, that Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington. But the black folks of Charleston had planned one more ceremony. That ceremony was a burial ceremony. It turns out that during the last months of the war the Confederate Army turned the planter’s horse track, a racecourse — it was called the Washington Racecourse — into an open air cemetery — excuse me, prison. And in that open air prison, in the infield of the horse track — about 260-odd Union soldiers had died of disease and exposure — and they were buried in unmarked graves in a mass gravesite out behind the grandstand of the racetrack. And by the way, there was no more important and symbolic site in low country planter/slaveholding life then their racetrack.
Well, the black folks at Charleston got organized, they knew about all this. They went to the site. They re-interred all the graves, the men. They couldn’t mark them with names, they didn’t have any names. Then they made them proper graves and they built a fence all the way around this cemetery, about 100 yards long and fity, sixty yards deep, and they whitewashed the fence and over an archway they painted the inscription “Martyrs of the Racecourse.” And then on May 1st 1865 they held a parade of 10,000 people, on the racetrack, led by 3000 black children carrying armloads of roses and singing John Brown’s Body, followed then by black women, then by black men — it was regimented this way — then by contingents of Union infantry. Everybody marched all the way around the racetrack; as many as could fit got into the gravesite. Five black preachers read from scripture. A children’s choir sang the national anthem, America the Beautiful, and several spirituals, and then they broke from that and went back into the infield of the racetrack and did essentially what you and I do on Memorial Day, they ran races, they listened to sixteen speeches, by one count, and the troops marched back and forth and they held picnics. This was the first Memorial Day.
African-Americans invented Memorial Day, in Charleston, South Carolina. There are three or four cities in the United States, North and South, that claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day, but they all claim 1866; they were too late.
Since I’m here and on the subject, Andy Hall has Frederick Douglass’ Decoration Day speech of 1871 over at Dead Confederates:
When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.
We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.
I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to hat terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.
The speech naturally invites comparison with Douglass’ Fourth of July speech. I don’t know that Douglass ever quite got over that; I don’t know that anybody could. Perhaps they shouldn’t. Regardless, the nation went out of its way to give him little reason to forgive and forget as the 1800s rolled on. But Douglass had in mind the narrow subject of men who gave their lives in ending slavery, not broad American patriotism.
As history rarely runs low on disappointments, Andy also brings word of how Arlington National Cemetery has neglected a section full of the graves of black soldiers and civilians to the point where many have simply vanished.