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May. 31 2010 - 10:07 am | 165 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

One Memorial Day, when the free buried the martyrs

CHALMETTE, LA - MAY 26:  Olivia Hoffman places...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

It’s Memorial Day in America. President Obama is off creating more symbolic connections to Abraham Lincoln and working in a weekend vacation back home, while Republicans gnash their teeth over his destroying an American tradition. You know, that tradition of the standing president visiting Arlington National Cemetery, which has not been broken since …. oh wait … 2002. Hmm.

Obama, as the linked article above shows, will still pay his respects to fallen soldiers–hopefully without any gaffes this time–in a national cemetery. Whether it’s a political mistake to skip Arlington I can’t say, but if Americans are going to grill the man for choosing to spend time at home with his family on Memorial Day, well, they should take their hands off that lighter fluid a moment and consider their own plans.

Since he’s breaking the short-lived precedent, I wish Obama could visit a site brought back to light by David W. Blight, professor of American history at Yale, whose essay ‘Decoration Days: The Origins of Memorial Days in the North and South’ takes us to Charleston, South Carolina.

There, during the last days of the war, slaves observed hundreds of Union soldiers die in a converted prison that was once a horse race track called Washington Race Course. ‘At least 257 died from exposure and disease and were hastily buried without coffins in unmarked graves behind the judges’ stand,’ Blight recounts.

The slaves who witnessed this suffering and ignomonious burial would not stand for the dead to be left in that state. Many believe this sparked the ‘First Decoration Day,’ Memorial Day’s precursor. In a matter of 10 days, freedmen enclosed the burial site with a whitewashed 10-foot fence, set the graves into neat rows and built an archway that read, ‘Martyrs of the Race Course.’

On May Day 1865, a procession of 10,000, mostly African Americans, marched around the race track to honor the fallen Union soldiers who had fought for their literal freedom. Blight quotes a newspaper correspondent who wrote, ‘there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy.’

Blight makes clear in his essay, which can be found in the book Memory of the Civil War in American Culture, that even then memorializing the dead was a political and acrimonious affair, especially in a nation still divided. But from that broken earth sprang beauty.

I say I wish Obama could visit the site, because he can’t. It fell into disrepair over the years and the soldiers were reinterred at national cemeteries nearby.


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  1. collapse expand

    Never heard that story. Thanks for your your observation and post. I knew Decoration Day evolved out of the Civil War but isn’t there a “global” memorial day honoring the dead from WWI and WWII? I nkow there is a field in Flanders. Tom Medlicott

  2. collapse expand

    Your defense of Obama is partisan and ridiculous.

    • collapse expand

      Ah, Leon, I actually went into this piece ready to rip Obama a new one until I found out that the last president who attended all Memorial Day services was Bill Clinton. Not 43 — who missed two. Not 41 — who never went to Arlington. Not Reagan either for that matter. So if Obama wants to do it in Illinois, fine. I will say it would have been wiser to stay in Washington, because he has little credibility with the military and needs to stay clear of controversy in that regard.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About 10 years ago, this lady in her 80s told me a childhood story about the day her mom tied her to a post on the porch. It was punishment for riding her tricycle past the curb at the end of their block. In the middle of the story she said to me, 'Wait, mom didn't tie me to the porch, she tied the tricycle to the porch. I just remembered that.' I've been fascinated by memory ever since.

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