Memorial Day’s Roots In The Civil War
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The first Memorial Day commemoration took place at Hampton Park in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865. The park was a horse racing track before the Confederate Army turned it into an open air prison in the last months of the war. Approximately 260 Union soldiers were interred there in unmarked graves. Black men and women—people who were freed as a result of the war—gathered at the race track in April to reinter the soldiers in proper graves. On May 1, a parade of 10,000 marchers was led by 3,000 children carrying roses and singing the song “John Brown’s Body.” The crowd listened to preachers, sang “America the Beautiful” and other songs, watched members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (an African American unit) march, and had picnics. In 1871, the soldiers were reinterred again at the Beaufort and Florence National Cemeteries.
For several election cycles after the war, Republicans would point to the Civil War when running for election. As the tactic began to be less effective over time, one year union veterans actually put blood on old clothing to demonstrate their war hero status. This tactic came to be called “waving the bloody shirt.”
These days, Memorial Day is arranged as a day “without politics”—a general patriotic celebration of all soldiers and veterans, regardless of the nature of the wars in which they participated. This is the opposite of how the day emerged, with explicitly partisan motivations, to celebrate those who fought for justice and liberation.
In 1854, the Republican Party had formed and spread like wildfire throughout the cities and towns of the upper Midwest. It was fueled by the abolition movement, and was a response to the promotion of slavery by the Democratic Party and the the unwillingness of the Whig Party to oppose it.
In 1860, the Republicans chose Abraham Lincoln as their nominee, and he eventually won. Over the next six months several states in the South seceded from the United States. Over the course of the next four years, at least 600,000 troops and perhaps as many as 1,000,000 Americans died as a result of the war — from battle, hunger, and disease, and the hazards of war. That’s about 3% of the total US population of 31 million at the time.
The battles were vast floods of human suffering. The following list is of casualties,. (A casualty occurs when a soldier is taken out of battle.)
- Gettysburg–51,000 casualties
- Chickamauga–34,624 casualties
- Spotsylvania–30,000 casualties
- The Wilderness–29,800 casualties
- Chancellorsville–24,000 casualties
- Shiloh–23,746 casualties
- Stones River–23,515 casualties
- Antietam–22,717 casualties
- Second Manassas–22,180 casualties
- Vicksburg–19,233 casualties
About 200,000 blacks fought for the North in the Civil War, both in the Army and the Navy. The Confederacy didn’t offer slaves their freedom for service until 1865, and it’s not known if any actually took the offer.
After the war, the long, slow process of reconciliation began, and continues in isolated pockets today. Memorial Day has become a holiday for honoring all of our nation’s war dead.