If any of us know the origins of Memorial Day, we point to May 30, 1868, the day General John Logan set aside, through special order, to be Decoration Day. This day was set aside “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 church-yard in the land.”
Although this was the start of the official holiday, which later came to be known as Memorial Day, it was not the beginning. Go back three years, to April 1865 to Charleston, South Carolina.
The Civil War was over. The city that was the start of the Civil War was in ruin. The Commander of the Twenty First U. S. Colored Infantry had accepted to formal surrender. Whites had fled the city.
The thousands of blacks that remained, most of them former slaves, held several events to commemorate the war and their new freedom. The largest of these events would become the beginning of Decoration Day, and lead to Memorial Day.
During the last year of the war, the Confederates had turned a horse racetrack into an outdoor prison. At least 257 Union soldiers perished and were buried in a mass grave. After the war was over, 28 black workmen went to the racetrack, dug up the bodies of the Union Soldiers, and gave them proper burial.
Then, on May 1, 1865 at 9am, a procession was held on the ground of the racetrack. Black residents, along with white missionaries and teachers, held a 10,000 person parade on the racetrack once owned by a slave owner.
At 9 am on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black school children carrying arm loads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathering in the cemetery enclosure; a childrens’ choir sang “We’ll Rally around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. No record survives of which biblical passages rung out in the warm spring air, but the spirit of Leviticus 25 was surely present at those burial rites: “for it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you… in the year of this jubilee he shall return every man unto his own possession.” ~David Blight
Following this, everyone enjoyed speeches, picnics, and military drills. Black military units were present, parading around the racetrack. To all of these people, Decoration Day, as it was later called, was about their freedom. Americans took note of May 1, 1865 and followed suit three years later, honoring the dead.
Decoration Day would morph into Memorial Day. Eventually both Northern and Southern States would celebrate the holiday together. After the World Wars, this holiday would take on so more meaning and more traditions. It would become the holiday we know now. But no matter what time we speak of, the holiday has always been about the beneficiaries of war honoring those that died obtaining the benefit.
NY Times. “What the History of Memorial Day Teaches About Honoring the War Dead”
Huffington Post. “Who Invented Memorial Day”