Today those of us in the United States celebrate Memorial Day. A day set aside to remember those who lost their lives serving their country in the military. But, for many, it is also a time to remember everyone who has served their country through military duty.
Around this time of the year, it is common to wish someone a Happy Memorial Day. This morning as I thought about my relatives who served, I thought about that phrase and wonder why we use it. Memorial Day is many things, but “happy” is not one of them. So I spent some of this morning reading about the origins of Memorial Day and the intent behind making it a national holiday.
The first Memorial Day (or Decoration Day as it was initially called) took place on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is also where the American Civil War began on the morning of April 12, 1861. The Confederate Army attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Forty-eight hours later, the Union Army surrendered and was taken as the first prisoners of the war.
In the late stages of the Civil War, the Confederate army transformed [a] formerly posh country club into 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.
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. They 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 then on May 1, 1865, something even more extraordinary happened. According to two reports that Blight found in The New York Tribune and The Charleston Courier, a crowd of 10,000 people, mostly freed slaves with some white 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. Black ministers recited verses from the Bible.
Six hundred thousand and twenty lives were lost in the Civil War. It didn’t take long for more cities and communities to hold their own observations of those fallen in battle. This continued across more of the country to honor men and women who served in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In 1967 Congress created a national holiday called “Memorial Day” and standardized the day of observance annually on the last Monday of May.
Changing the day created a three-day weekend which has had the adverse effect of directing the focus of Memorial Day away remembrance to that of an unofficial start of summer. And that, I suppose, is how the word “happy” crept into an otherwise, intentionally solemn day. For whatever reason, we label all of our holidays as “happy” except for Christmas thanks to Bing Crosby.
Right now, on the spot, I’m not exactly sure what word I’d use instead, but “meaningful” comes to mind. So have a Meaningful Memorial Day. It doesn’t have a ring to it, but the whole damn point is to turn off your jet ski for a minute and remember the generations who were called to serve and did so with honor and valor. The men and women who fought so that decades later we did not have to do the same.
Today, we are taking time to reflect on Calvin Hubbard, Sherriell Storey Sr., James Voigts, and James Fernandez for their service, sacrifice, and commitment to their country. And as I have learned, when one is deployed, all are deployed. So we also take time to think about their families and the pain they surely endured, not knowing if their husbands and fathers would return home.
Take a minute today and remember those who served, hug your family, and be well.