The Very First Memorial Day

Officially, Memorial Day was first celebrated on May 30, 1868 at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. The occasion commemorated the 620,000 dead from Confederate and Union armies of the Civil War.

But almost lost to history was the first such celebration by some emancipated slaves in Charleston, South Carolina even before the war had ended. Over two hundred Union soldiers had died in captivity in a makeshift prison facility at a converted horse racing track. They had been hastily buried behind the grandstand in a mass grave.

After the fall of Charleston to the Union forces in February, 1865, the freed slaves were left on their own. Their first collective act was to give those Union soldiers a proper burial in a new plot of ground complete with a white picket fence and an inscription to the “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Even more amazing was what followed. Some 10,000 people, most of them newly freed slaves, along with the 54th Massachusetts and other black Union divisions, joined in a parade which encircled the infamous race track. Three thousand black children carried bouquets of flowers, and Scripture was read by their pastors.

That was May 1, 1865, less than a month after war’s end, a full three years before the celebration in Arlington. Even the New York Tribune carried the story. It is hard to imagine a more fitting tribute, but ironically this first, poignant “Memorial Day” has been forgotten.

We humans are forgetful, and that is why there are so many memorials and celebrations in Scripture, including our own Lord’s Supper. Peter is concerned about our memories in his writings. He says, in fact, that believers can forget forgiveness (2 Peter 1:9).

The slaves could never have forgotten the soldiers who helped liberate them. So how is it possible to forget God’s love and His sacrifice of His Son? Let’s pause today to recall, not only our fallen heroes, but the God whose grace inspires us to lay down our lives for others.

“Father, as we pause to remember the fallen, we ask your grace to remember our own bondage to sin and the ultimate Hero who died to set us free, not only in this life, but in the life to come. Amen.”

One Response to “The Very First Memorial Day”

  1. Ray Hutchison says:

    Good stuff Pastor Bob!! I’ve discovered that African American brothers and sisters in Christ often show us the proper Christian response following tragedy. Their response to race-bases killings are in Charleston, SC and Dallas, TX are good examples.

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