Perhaps the terrible toll that has engulfed the greater world community due to the black wave known as COVID 19 brings about an urgent sense of reflection and recollection on the true meaning of Memorial Day.
One of the earliest commentaries was provided by Frederick Douglass at Arlington National Cemetery on Decoration Day 1871. He would extol to the crowd to never forget the true meaning and sacrifices the nation had to come to terms with because of the Civil War.
He would say, "Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable."
Another rationale was given by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., whose deep personal perspective was delivered on May 30, 1884, in Keene, New Hampshire. In replying to a previous inquiry as to why the nation should be commemorating Memorial Day some 20 odd years after the War's conclusion he would say that it, "...celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly." Holmes, a future Associate Justice of the Supreme Court would movingly go on to exclaim, "But, nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing." If the professions of two of the towering figures of the age is worth anything, then there can be little doubt or trepidation on why we as a nation should continue to commemorate a Memorial Day in this honored tradition.
Memorial/Decoration Day officially became rooted in the American consciousness by Major General and then head of the fraternal organization of the Grand Army of the Republic Commander in Chief John A. Logan's General Order No. 11., which publicly conveyed that, “the 30th day of May 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit...” In fact many years prior to this declaration communities in both the North and the South had begun to hold days of commemoration and remembrance to the fallen soldiers of the Civil War.
David W. Blight is one of the historians who has vividly detailed what he believed to be the origins of America's first Memorial /Decoration Day.
As the War drew to a close in the spring of 1865, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Blacks in Charleston, South Carolina, many former slaves, would erect a cemetery on the grounds of the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, a facility that had been converted into a prison for Union soldiers during the War. Due to the unsanitary conditions and disease which plagued the facility, by late April 1865 roughly 250 Union soldiers would succumb to the effects of their confinement. Viewing this calamity, nearly three dozen freemen would take it upon themselves to give these men a proper burial by cleaning the grounds, fencing off the newly cemented cemetery, and building a main entrance that read, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
After completing this solemn duty, over 10,000 townspeople, mostly black and Christian missionaries, many children, would lead a procession to the racetrack singing hymns and waving flowers, wreaths and other fixtures as they marched with precision. Following this the crowds dispersed and participated in picnics, watched units like the 54th Massachusetts perform drills, and heard rousing speeches commemorating the day's activities. Oddly enough, a New York Tribune writer was on hand to chronicle the entire spectacle, and to David Blight this is the first official account that came to symbolize what we refer to today as Memorial Day. Interestingly enough, it wouldn't be until May 26th , 1966 that then President Lyndon Baines Johnson would sign an official Presidential Proclamation which would recognize Waterloo, New York as having the first and most continuous of the nation's Memorial Day celebrations.
It is well that we pay respectful tribute to the memories of those who have served our nation and communities so ably and faithfully on this Memorial Day. We should also remember that According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, over 1,000 veterans have been stricken by COVID 19, and that number does not include the untold hundreds who may have fallen in state-run veterans homes and assisted living facilities. We must do better by those who served the nation so ably. May those who have succumbed to this terrible virus find peace on the other side of the river.
Fittingly, The poem of C.W. Johnson,“Memorial Day”, may sum up the occasion best:
“We walked among the crosses, where our Fallen Soldier lay.
And listened to the bugle, as Taps began to play.
The Chaplin led a prayer, and we stood with heads bowed low.
And I thought of Fallen Comrades, that I had known so long ago.
They came from every City, across this fertile land.
That we might live in Freedom, they lie here beneath the sand.
I felt a little guilty, my sacrifice was small.
I only lost a little time, but they had lost their all.
Now the Services are over, for this Memorial Day.
To the names upon these crosses, I just want to say.
Thanks for what you’ve given; no one could ask for more.
May you rest with God in Heaven, from now through evermore.
May God Bless Our Country each and every day…And may we be forever grateful for our Freedom and for those who have helped make it possible…With their Service and their sacrifice.”
Respectfully, Eric A. Atkins