A Very Special Holiday

Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day, but no matter what you call it this is a federal holiday in the United States. Memorial Day honors and mourns for the military personnel who have died in the performance of their military duty while serving in the United States Armed Forces. An interesting but seldom observed fact is that the U.S. flag is flown at half mast till noon and to full post after noon till evening. Below chronicles some very interesting facts concerning this holiday.

The civil war ended in the spring of 1865 and claimed more lives than any conflict in US history. This event spurned the establishment of the country’s first national cemetery. By the late 1860’s Americans in various towns and cities began holding springtime tributes to these fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.

The first historical reference to Memorial Day, the first celebration, is a tribute to both color and character. When Charleston fell and Confederate troops evacuated the badly damaged city, those freed from enslavement remained. One of the first things those emancipated men and women did was to give the fallen Union prisoners a proper burial. You see the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston South Carolina was a makeshift prison for Union captives. More than 260 Union soldiers died from disease and exposure while being held in the race track’s open air infield. Their bodies were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstands.

The freed slaves exhumed the mass grave and reinterred the bodies in a new cemetery with a tall whitewashed fence inscribed with the words: “Martyrs of the Race Course.” And now for the rest of the story:

On May 1st, 1865 something extraordinary happened. According to two reports from the New York Tribune and the Charleston Courier a crowd of 10,000 people, mostly freed slaves with some White and Black missionaries staged a parade around the race track. Three thousand Black schoolchildren carried bouquets of flowers and sang “John Brown’s Body.” Members of the famed 54th Massachusetts and other Black Union regiments were in attendance and performed double-time marches and Black ministers recited verses from the Bible.

This gathering in 1865 at the Charleston race track would be the earliest Memorial Day commemoration on record. This observance was organized by freed slaves in Charleston at least a year before other U.S. cities and three years before the first national observance.

My grandfather was in the military and is buried in Golden Gate Cemetery located in San Bruno California. I remember the eerie sight that reflected the majesty of the gravestones aligned so perfectly in a symmetrical display of sadness. As most people that fought in wars my grandfather didn’t speak of the war too often. His stories usually centered around the brave young men that became brothers, scared and yet determined to protect their fellow soldiers and their country from harm.

My earliest recollection of this holiday was when my family would (on Memorial Day and my grandfather Bill’s birthday) drive to the Golden Gate Cemetery and place flowers on Bill’s grave while speaking of the wonderful man he was. Seldom did we ever miss a birthday or Memorial Day to honor this very special person.

The fleeting time I spent (when I was very young) with my grandfather was highlighted by our conversations and checker games. He was very proud of his service, loved his family, and would give the shirt off of his back to help anyone in distress.

Memorial Day provides us with a time to honor the memories of those that have died to protect our freedom. While there is much dissent now between a majority of Americans it is important that we understand and honor the sacrifice of our military men and women. We could possibly have no opinion voiced in public ruled by a tyrannical government that stifles our most important constitutional right, free speech.

Perhaps today along with barbecues and celebration we can bow our heads in quiet reverence to those that have given the ultimate sacrifice.

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