The origins of Memorial Day can be traced back to a time when the divisions in our country make the current ‘red vs. blue’ climate seem like a children’s sandlot contest…
The first known observance of a Memorial Day precursor was in 1865. Former slaves, called ‘freedmen’ at the time, and abolitionists gathered in Charleston, SC to honor the Civil War’s fallen Union soldiers with an observance that eventually came to be known as Decoration Day as it spread throughout the states – a day to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers.
That site in Charleston, SC is today called Hampton Park. In 1865, it was known as the Washington Racecourse and during the war it served as a Confederate prison camp and a mass grave for hundreds of Union soldiers. When the fighting came to halt, freedman exhumed the bodies in the mass grave and gave each an individual burial in proper Union graveyard. On May 1, 1865, thousands of freedmen gathered at this location to pay tribute.
As Decoration Day observances sprang up throughout the former Union states, former Confederate states held their own observances for their fallen (9 states still do). It wasn’t until after World War I that those lines began to blur nationwide. The term ‘Memorial Day’ also began to take hold over time, commonly supplanting Decoration Day by the end of World War II. Memorial Day became a federal holiday in 1971 and within a few years all 50 states adopted it.
And now, a day that was born of American division, honors all men and women who have died fighting for the United States of America.