So my husband and I were discussing whether Memorial Day started after WWI or the Civil War. He was really certain that Decoration Day (as his mother used to call it) really begin after the Civil War. I rather thought it started after World War I.
Lo and behold, a Suffolk colleague, Prof. Frank Cooper, sent me an e-mail stating:
Memorial Day was started by former slaves on May, 1, 1865 in Charleston, SC to honor 257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. They dug up the bodies and worked for 2 weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. They then held a parade of 10,000 people led by 2,800 Black children where they marched, sang and celebrated.Wow! I thanked him, but before I ran to OOTJ to post this for your edification, I felt obliged to check it out.
First, I went to the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs website. This provides quite a lengthy history of the dispute over when and where the first Memorial Day celebration was held. It was definitely held shortly after the end of the Civil War, so my husband has won the argument, hands down. However, the VA does not repeat Frank's story at all. There are lots of competing first celebrations, but none involving freed slaves or people of color at all.
So, then, I searched for details from the e-mail Frank sent me. That actually turned up a couple hits, but I followed the link to Snopes.com. Snopes lists Memorial Day Origin and pretty much repeats Frank's e-mail. They credit the story to David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press), 2001, pp. 69-71. (ISBN 1-674-00332-2 for your convenience.) Snopes also includes all the details (and more) from the VA website, so it's a very detailed source on this topic. They conclude that, it's quite clearly true that the event occurred, with newspaper reports of the re-burial at a Charleston racetrack, carried out by the congregations of all the black churches of Charleston. But it is not so clear that this powerful public statement actually led to the spread of Memorial Day celebrations in other areas of the country.
The folks who reburied the Union soldiers in Charleston built an elaborate fence around the graveyard which they created. There was white-washed arch at the entry, with a sign painted on it: "Martyrs of the Race Course." The e-mail Frank sent me did not exaggerate the number of participants in the ceremonies, which is astounding. It did include a photograph, ostensibly of the children saluting the flag during the ceremony. The group of children is certainly not 2,800 children in size. And my husband wondered aloud how they got all those children to hold still long enough for a daguerrotype to be made. It turns out there were about 4 or 5 other technologies floating around to make photographic images. See this history. It may be that some technolgies did not require the subject of the photograph to hold still so long. But the image, used above to decorate this post, is evocative, whether it really comes from this very ceremony or not. I also find it rather chilling that the children appear to be saluting the flag with what would later be a Nazi salute!
The Veterans Affairs website states the General Army of the Republic (the Union Army) celebrated a memorial for the Civil War dead of both sides in May, 1868. There were apparently many local remembrances in 1866 and on, with many different towns and cities claiming to have been the first Memorial Day site. In 1966, a federal law officially recognized Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Both the Snopes site and the VA site continue in detail about the various contenders for the first site of Memorial Day and also various first celebrators of Confederate Memorial Days, and current dates for such celebrations. It was not until 1971 (!) that Memorial Day became a federal holiday and was moved to always fall on a Monday.