Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Observation of Memorial Day is for visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings, and participating in parades. Unofficially, it marks the beginning of the summer season.
The Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history, and required establishing the country’s first national cemeteries. Each year on Memorial Day, a national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time.
By the late 1860s, Residents across America began holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.
For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date General Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day.
Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, in 1968 which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The change went into effect in 1971.
One of the earliest commemorations was organized by recently freed African Americans. As the Civil War neared its end, thousands of Union soldiers, held as prisoners of war, were herded into a series of hastily assembled camps in Charleston, South Carolina. Conditions at one camp, a former racetrack near the city’s Citadel, were so bad that more than 250 prisoners died from disease or exposure and were buried in a mass grave behind the track’s grandstand.
From 1792 – 1900, Hampton Park was a horse racing track called Washington Race Track. It was started by the South Carolina Jockey Club. Though the track was historically closed in 1900, the last race was in 1877 due to the damage caused by the Civil War.
Three weeks after the Confederate surrender, an unusual procession entered the former camp: On May 1, 1865, more than 1,000 people recently freed from enslavement, accompanied by regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops (including the Massachusetts 54th Infantry) and a handful of white Charlestonians, gathered in the camp to consecrate a new, proper burial site for the Union dead. The group sang hymns, gave readings, and distributed flowers around the cemetery dedicated to the “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
The WWI Origins of the Poppy as a Remembrance Symbol; The Remembrance Day symbolism of the poppy started with a poem written by a World War I brigade surgeon who was struck by the sight of the red flowers growing on a ravaged battlefield.
In 1915, bright red flowers began poking through the battle-devastated land across northern France and Flanders (north Belgium). Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who served as a brigade surgeon for an Allied artillery unit, spotted a cluster of the poppies shortly after serving as a brigade surgeon during the bloody Second Battle of Ypres.
The sight of the bright red flowers against the dreary backdrop of war inspired McCrae to pen the poem, “In Flanders Field,” in which he gives voice to the soldiers who had been killed in battle and lay buried beneath the poppy-covered grounds. Later that year, a Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker named Moina Michael read the poem in Ladies’ Home Journal and wrote her poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith,” to begin a campaign to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to all who died in the war. The poppy remains a symbol of remembrance to this day.
History.com Editors. (2009, October 27). Memorial Day. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/memorial-day-history
Maranzani, B. (2013, May 24). 8 things you may not know about Memorial Day. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/news/8-things-you-may-not-know-about-memorial-day
Pruitt, S. (2018, November 9). The WWI origins of the poppy as a remembrance symbol. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/news/world-war-i-poppy-remembrance-symbol-veterans-day
Secrets of Hampton Park: The citadel’s friendly neighbor – Charleston daily. (2016, March 13). Charleston Daily – Seeking all the beauty that is Charleston, SC. https://charlestondaily.net/secrets-of-hampton-park-the-citadels-friendly-neighbor/?fbclid=IwAR0bpcTU_NSxSG_Yfe8HJuWsXUPZt_7iKX-RsNDhufKXoTw4b8j4fZJl7nw
To understand the role of poems in World War One. (2017, July 16). SlidePlayer – Upload and Share your PowerPoint presentations. https://slideplayer.com/slide/3030418/
(n.d.). YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ma2aF5hsikA