Remembering Memorial Day

Posted by: John Engstrom, Resident Legal Advisor

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Decoration Day
Decoration Day

Remembering Memorial Day is something that I feel passionately about.  In the U.S., Memorial Day is often celebrated in much the same way that May Day is celebrated in Ukraine – as a public holiday creating a long weekend for families and friends to gather for picnics and fun.  For many, the original purpose of Memorial Day — to pay tribute to our country’s war dead — is lost in other celebrations.

This year, November 19 will mark the 150th Anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – considered by many to be the greatest American speech of all time.  Lincoln offered his short speech at the dedication of a cemetery for Union soldiers who were killed earlier that year at the battle of Gettysburg.  In his address, Lincoln eloquently explained what all Americans should remember on Memorial Day:

Pic2It is for us the living . . . to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain [and] that government of the people, by the people, for people, shall not perish from the earth.

Memorial Day celebrations began after the Civil War as a way to remember and recognize those who died in the war.  Because the wounds between the North and South did not mend overnight, the North and South initially celebrated Memorial Days on different dates, usually remembering the dead who died for their cause only.  But in either case, the ceremonies involved laying Spring flowers at the graves of the dead.  After World War I, as the North and South continued the process of reconciliation, a single day was created to remember all those soldiers who died in all U.S. wars.  That day was originally referred to as Decoration Day, but now is known as Memorial Day.

As a result of recent research, Yale historian David Blight has described the very first Memorial Day celebration.   As the Civil War wound down, the Confederate Army began holding Union prisoners at an open horse-racing track in Charleston, South Carolina.  Not surprisingly, the living conditions were deplorable and at least 250 Union prisoners died from dysentery, diseases and unsanitary conditions.  These soldiers were then buried in a mass grave on the grounds of the race track.

54th Massachusetts, a black infantry regiment

Near the conclusion of the war, the City of Charleston (where coincidentally, the war began in April 1861) was nearly destroyed as it was recaptured by Union troops.  At that time, many of the city’s white population fled, leaving behind thousands of black citizens, primarily former slaves, now freed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  Many of the former slaves understood what had happened at the race-track/prison and they built a large white fence around it.  Over the entrance they inscribed: “Martyrs of the Race Course.”  They then proceeded to dig up the mass grave and provide for proper burials for the Union soldiers.

On May 1, 1865 – less than a month after the war’s end – a parade of over 10,000 black Charlestonians, white missionaries and teachers, marched through the streets of Charleston to the new cemetery on the grounds of the former race track.  The parade was led by 3,000 black children carrying flowers and singing “John Brown’s Body” (John Brown was a famous opponent of slavery; the tune of the song is the same as the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic).  Unfortunately, virtually no records exist describing exactly what was said at that first remarkable Memorial Day ceremony, but a New York Tribune reporter described “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”  Spiritual songs were sung and black ministers read from passages of the Bible.  Afterwards, soldiers drilled and people had picnics.  Among the participants in the parade and ceremony were the remaining soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts, a black infantry regiment, made famous by the movie “Glory” starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick.

Marine Guard Reenactors
Marine Guard Reenactors

On a personal note, when in the U.S., I celebrate Memorial Day in a rather unique way.  I am a Civil War reenactor and specifically a member of a group representing the “U.S.S. Michigan Marine Guard.”  I generally depict a Marine private or sergeant who served during the Civil War on the Navy’s first iron-hulled warship, the U.S.S. Michigan.  It’s an interesting hobby because many Americans have no idea that U.S. Marines even participated in the Civil War.  On Memorial Day weekend, our Marine Guard joins over a thousand other Civil War reenactors (Union and Confederate) in a three-day event at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.  Greenfield Village is a large historical park similar to Pyrohivo in Kyiv.  Throughout the weekend, the soldiers reside in camps similar to what would have existed during the Civil War.  We attempt to stay as true as possible to the times and our characters while sharing “living history” with the public.  It’s usually a very hot and exhausting weekend, filled with hours of drilling, as well as several large-scale battle scenarios, including artillery, cavalry and infantry.

On Memorial Day, at noon, both armies march onto a large village green and face one another at attention, separated by a symbolic cemetery.  As all soldiers “present arms,” women reenactors slowly walk through the troops and deliver flowers in honor of all Americans who “gave their last full measure of devotion” on behalf of the United States.  Following that ceremony, all active service members and veterans are invited into the space between the reenactors and they are formally thanked for their service to the United States.  Without fail, that simple ceremony never fails to both choke me up, and to inspire me to finish, as President Lincoln implored, the “unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”  It’s a message worth remembering on Memorial Day and throughout the year.


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