Good morning, it's Friday, May 28, 2021, the day of the week when I reprise quotations intended to be uplifting or educational. Today's concerns Memorial Day, a national observance that flowed naturally out of the Civil War, the apocalyptic racial reckoning that claimed more American lives than any war fought by this country before or since.
A New York village named Waterloo claims to be the first to come up with the idea of honoring America's wartime dead with parades and flowers, and the town has a congressional proclamation to prove it. In 1966, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller issued a declaration to that effect, which was followed by Congress' stamp of approval. In mid-May that year, the House and Senate unanimously passed a resolution: "Resolved that the Congress of the United States, in recognition of the patriotic tradition set in motion one hundred years ago in the Village of Waterloo, N.Y., does hereby officially recognize Waterloo … as the birthplace of Memorial Day."
It's a nice gesture, and Waterloo's city fathers were certainly on the case by 1866.
Charleston, S.C., where the Civil War began, was under siege from July 1863 until the city's mayor surrendered it at 9 a.m., Feb. 18, 1865, in anticipation of the arrival of Union troops under William Tecumseh Sherman. Whites in the city wrote in despair of what had happened to their city. Harriott Horry Ravenel, wife of a well-known Confederate physician, described the scene on the streets as "biblical … like going from life to death."
To the city's blacks, most of whom had been enslaved, what was biblical about that time was their liberation. They celebrated it for more than two months.
On March 3, 1865, a contingent of 13 formally dressed black women -- one for each of the original colonies -- presented an American flag and other gifts to the Union general commanding the occupation. On March 29, some 4,000 African Americans marched in a victory parade. And on April 14, a huge throng gathered at Fort Sumter where the shooting by Confederates began. This time, the U.S. flag was raised, not lowered. It was the same flag, too, with the same U.S. Army officer presiding -- Robert Anderson, by then a retired brigadier general.
Dignitaries ranging from Abraham Lincoln's secretary, John G. Nicolay, to abolitionist firebrand William Lloyd Garrison were present at the old fort in Charleston Harbor. When the band struck up "John Brown's Body" and 3,000 black voices sang along, Garrison wept openly.
All these events were chronicled, though are barely remembered today. But one celebration was almost completely lost to history. It was rediscovered, well over than a century later, in the archives in a Harvard library by a meticulous Yale professor named David W. Blight. This forgotten event was the decision by Charleston's black residents to pay homage to 257 soldiers who had died in captivity in Charleston in the waning days of the war.
The men had been kept in rudimentary outdoor conditions at the city's horse-race track. This is where the Union men died -- of exposure or disease or the lingering effects of their war wounds -- and where they were dumped unceremoniously in unmarked graves.
The city's black residents decided to rebury them with appropriate solemnity in an enclosed area under the inscription "Martyrs of the Race Course." Though they had no names to put on the grave markers, black Charlestonians held a commemoration for them on May 1, 1865. All this we know because of the diligent research of Professor Blight. He discovered that the ceremony began with 3,000 black children carrying roses and singing hymns. They were followed, in succession, by 300 women, ranks of black men, and finally soldiers -- many of them black.
"And then they broke from all that and went back to the infield and essentially did what you and I do on Memorial Day," Blight has said. "They ran races. They listened to speeches … and they held picnics. This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day -- in Charleston, South Carolina."
And that's our quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.