Celebrate those who died to save our freedom
Spring is finally here! After a rough winter, we all have been anticipating the long-awaited spring time and the official day for opening area pools — Memorial Day! A day off of work and school, where family and friends gather together for an outdoor picnic of hot dogs and hamburgers. But is today’s Memorial Day celebration much different from that of our ancestors, or has modern culture pulled us away from its true meaning? Tie into your day the honoring of those who have gone on before us by placing fresh spring flowers onto graves of fallen soldiers and you have a day of decoration that dates back to that of the mid 1800s — yes, with picnics and all!
For families in this time period, a day of memorialization developed into a significant holiday, because nearly every household in America experienced a loss due to the Civil War. Let us pause here for a moment to understand this war and why it completely changed our government and America’s perception when faced with a loss, and in turn was the creation of one of the most honorable of days — Memorial Day.
For the first time, Americans experienced extensive casualties during the Civil War. This generated an overwhelming inability to cope with great loss as it wasn’t a witnessed peaceful process that most often occurred prior to the war.
Soldiers were laid to rest in mass graves on or near the battlefields where they fell. Local newspapers and fellow soldiers were the only methods of informing family members that their loved ones were “missing.” There were no survivor benefits at this time for family members of individuals that gave their lives to this country. Prior to the war, there was no veterans cemeteries, and Arlington National Cemetery was not in existence. There was no location for family members to visit or place flowers. Nor was there a national day of recognition to honor those who had fallen.
The Civil War truly redefined the way Americans view death. Due to this new reality, government policies and procedures were implemented and the general need to cope with a loss was redefined. Our government responded through the creation of veterans cemeteries, survivor benefits, and an identification process for those who were lost at war and away from home. Ultimately, it brought about the creation of a national day to reflect on the lives of the individuals who fought for our freedom.
The remembrance day we have come to know as Memorial Day was something that began years following the war.
Southerners had multiple decoration days for honoring their Civil War veterans. Just a few of the many are: May 10th, the anniversary of Stone Wall Jackson’s death; April 26th, the day of final Confederate surrender; and June 3rd, Jefferson Davis’s birthday. As for the Northerners, General John Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, established in 1868 a formal spring day for the decorating of fallen soldiers. May 30th was established as Decoration Day, the forerunner of Memorial Day. Even though the general concept is the same, in some areas in the South, this day is still observed on a day other than the last Monday in May.
The formal practice of what we know as Memorial Day actually started in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865, by a small group of Southerners. During the last year of the war, an open air prison was established for captured Union soldiers at a place called Planters Race Course.
About 260 Union soldiers died at this prison and were buried in a mass grave just behind the grandstands of the race track. In February of 1865, after holding out to the bitter end, the Southerners evacuated Charleston and the Union army moved in. The few Southerners that still remained in the city were free slaves and loyal to the Union army. They collectively came together and reinterred each of those 260 Union soldiers into individual graves. None of them were properly named due to a lack of dog tags. This team of Southerners went on to build a large white fence surrounding these graves and included an archway for the entrance, and the cemetery was named Martyrs of the Race Course. On May 1st, upon its completion, a huge parade was held on the race track with an estimated 10,000 people in attendance. “The Star Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful” were sung by children choirs and scripture read by a series of clergymen. After the parade they all broke up and went into the center of the race track and did what most of us do on Memorial Day — held picnics.
Unfortunately there were no pools to be opened during this time frame, but I would imagine that if there were, they’d be opened in celebration of the lives each of those Union soldiers gave for that small group of Southerners’ freedom. As you bite down into your hamburger this Memorial Day, take a moment to give thanks to all of those who gave their life for our freedom over the many years since and during the Civil War.
Amazing as it is, modern day celebration is not that different from that of our ancestors: picnics and celebratory toasts to the ones who gave their lives for that which we often take too lightly ... our freedom.
Centreville Rotary’s Flags for Heroes are displayed at Chesapeake College, the corner of U.S. Route 50 and Md. Route 213, for Memorial Day weekend 2015. The Rotary is planning another display this year.