When Memorial Day was first celebrated, America was learning to be America again. Over 600,000 soldiers had fallen over four years, fighting for the Union and the Confederacy, and the wounds had not yet healed. David Blight, author of Race and Reunion, wrote about the early memorials just after the Civil War in the New York Times. “The Southern dead were honored as the true ‘patriots’” in Southern ceremonies, he wrote. “Yankee Memorial Day orations often righteously claimed the high ground of blood sacrifice to save the Union and destroy slavery. It was not uncommon for a speaker to honor the fallen of both sides, but still lay the war guilt on the ‘rebel dead.’”
However, as this partisan argument was taking place, the real Memorial Day was forming. Blight discovered that on May 1, 1865, black workmen went to the site of an outdoor Confederate prison and mass grave in Charleston, SC. There they reburied the dead Union soldiers and built a high fence around the property to protect them. Then, the workmen joined with white missionaries and teachers in a march of 10,000 around the grounds. Blight writes, “The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.”
As the years have worn on, Memorial Day has remained a holiday for patriots. A holiday to remember fallen Americans at home and abroad, and thank them for their sacrifice. But America is a land of immigrants and foreigners, something that those fighting in the Civil War understood well. “Immigrants embraced Memorial day Day in its early years, since huge numbers fought in the Civil War,” Blight told us. “Nearly forty percent of the Union armies were foreign-born.” The numbers are still high today; as of 2009 there were reportedly 114,601 foreign-born individuals serving in the U.S. Military, making Memorial Day a truly international holiday.
What are your thoughts this Memorial Day? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Related: WWII & NYC opens October 5, 2012