Author's note: On May 26, 2013, I published a report entitled “The black roots of Memorial Day.” I traced the evolution of this national holiday from it's inception during the Civil War right straight through to this upcoming weekend's commemoration.
In further and continuing recognition of the not quite 750,000 soldiers, sailors and civilians who died during that national mass bloodletting – both North and South, black, white, and otherwise – I hereby reprint that report in its entirety.
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"This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”
Did you know that freed black slaves invented Memorial Day?
The Huffington Post has published a fascinating piece by Jim Downs, author of Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford U.P., May 2012). Downs is also an associate professor of history at Connecticut College.
On May 1, 1865, freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina met by the thousands to remember, honor, and commemorate the death of Union soldiers, to celebrate the end of the American Civil War and to confirm their hard-won freedom.
Up to 10,00 black people, including 3,000 school children newly enrolled in freedmen's schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, black preachers, and white northern missionaries – all marched down Charleston's main street to remember the fallen, to thank the fallen, to let the world know that there was a new dispensation in this now really united United States of America.
In 1868, General John Logan issued a special order that May 30, 1868 would forever be observed as “Decoration Day,” the first [official] Memorial Day. It was recognized as a day "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."
The first few Memorial Day commemorations following Charleston's were not universally recognized or celebrated. But, the federal government began to set aside the first national cemeteries for those killed in the war, beginning with Confederate General Robert E. Lee's own home and expansive grounds at Arlington, Virginia.
Throughout the North, from New York to Michigan, Decoration Day slowly became an official holiday as the 1870s progressed.
As Downs details, in the South, from each April to June, white women and little girls dressed in white and prayed under statues of Confederate heroes. They recounted war stories about their men who had been lost in the “The War Between The States,” “The War of Secession,” or sometimes ,“The Invasion of the North.” This is where and when the meme that “the South shall rise again,” that “state's rights” were not really “defeated” in the war and will some day resurge and win, began.
By the early 20th century, as America's imperial role in the world was developing, many surviving Civil War veterans, fearful of being forgotten, helped Memorial Day become a national holiday.
But, again, it was the newly freed black people of Charleston who originally got the ball rolling. Yes, those folks recognized and honored all those who had fought and died for their freedom. But their celebration was much, much more than a simple pause to remember dead soldiers.
Professor Downs unpacks the War as a complex and complicated process that involved the death of hundreds of thousands of former black slaves, as well.
While we are well aware of the more than 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who died during the war, we know little or nothing of the “astonishing mortality of many ex-slaves.”
Downs' HuffPost piece shows us that thousands upon thousands of slaves liberated themselves from chattel slavery by escaping before and throughout the war. But their escape was fraught with more than the to be expected risk and danger of being caught and returned to bondage.
These already desperate people entered a “free world” that was plagued by cholera, dysentery, and yellow fever. These were little understood, devastating diseases for which the just-above primitive medical establishment had no answer. And, setting a pattern which has lasted right up until this morning, black people's affliction and suffering from these illnesses was grossly disproportionate to their numbers in the population vis-a-vis white people.
Indeed, according to Professor Downs, the almost unimaginable numbers of both soldiers and civilians who died during the war did so not from battle-related injuries, but from disease and sickness. As he puts it, “the war became the largest biological crisis of nineteenth-century America.”
More likely than not, for example, ex-slaves did not have proper shelter, food, and clothing. Without these life-sustaining staples, they were virtually defenseless when a smallpox epidemic hit Washington, D.C. in 1863. The pox spread to the Lower South and Mississippi Valley in 1864 to 1865.
A military official in Kentucky called smallpox a "monster that needed to be checked," while another federal agent described the "severity and almost malignancy of the epidemic," and predicted that "before the coming summer is over it will decimate the colored population."
In the end, this one epidemic killed over 60,000 former slaves in the space of five years.
At the same time, other, equally virulent diseases compounded the death toll among black people exponentially to well over one million people -- that's more than twenty-five percent of the newly freed population.
We have all seen the grisly daguerreotypes and photos prominent in Civil War history books of almost exclusively white officers and enlisted men. We see them, posed it seems, frozen in death on the battlefield or, piled like so much cord wood in mass graves. And white folks today never tire of reminding blacks that “they” fought to free us...and use these pictures as proof positive thereof.
What we don't see, what is rarely, almost never depicted are the dead freed black people. (Let alone the 200,000 black soldiers and sailors who fought in that war, as well – 40,000 of whom died of disease, rather than combat injuries).
White soldiers' deaths during the Civil War are rightly commemorated. Those deaths are also much more valued and meaningful to the self-image of white America as always being on the side of “freedom.”
Those haunting images feed the heroic mythology that is white America, and has culminated in the now nationally celebrated nationalism of Memorial Day.
Indeed, white folks' deaths during the war are being actually “reenacted” annually by thousands as a useful, even fun, hobby on this holiday weekend. White folks get to play dead.
But there is no reinactment of the deaths of one million former slaves who died of disease and sickness after the war. I suppose there could not be. It's entertainment value is negligible – depicting people dying horrible, slow deaths in the frozen woods and backwaters of these United States.
Besides, as the professor says, “there was no chance of them coming back to life in a costume worn by an admirer a century later.”
This is the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.
As you chomp down on some “baby back” ribs, hot dogs, and hamburgers; or as you visit your deceased loved ones at the cemetery, pause, please, for just a momemt.
Try to remember that it was the most despised people of the day – and, some argue of this day -- freed black slaves who created Memorial Day.