Meskers: Putting Memorial Day in Context

Submitted by Steve Meskers. Remarks delivered in Binney Park on Monday, May 30

These are my Gettysburg notes and a reflection on the holiday. Very little of this work is original to me, but I think it so important that we contextualize the holiday. History requires that we think critically about all aspects of it.

The first observance of what would become Memorial Day, some historians think, took place in Charleston, S.C., at the site of a horse racing track that Confederates had turned into a prison holding Union prisoners. Blacks in the city organized a burial of deceased Union prisoners and built a fence around the site.

“The racetrack that is now Hampton Park was used as a prisoner of war camp for Union POWs,” said Adam Domby, assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston.

At the time, the park was called the Washington Racecourse and Jockey Club.

257 Union prisoners died in the camp and were buried in a mass grave.

“A martyr dies for something greater than himself,” Domby said. “In this case, the martyrs died for African Americans to be free.”

Freed slaves spent the weeks before what historians have labeled the first Memorial Day exhuming the bodies of the soldiers, creating a cemetery, and reburying the troops, according to Domby.

They put a sign up marking the site “The Martyrs at the Racecourse.”

Then, on May 1, 1865, they paid tribute.

“They literally covered the graves with flowers,” said Domby. “There were so many flowers, according to reports of the time.”

Thousands of freed slaves joined Union soldiers in a march to the cemetery.

The ceremony was labeled “Decoration Day” and was featured in parades, singing, and picnics.

“Some of these soldiers themselves had previously walked these streets as slaves before entering the Union service,” Domby added.

It was the first celebration of its kind, according to Domby.

“The entire African American community in Charleston would take the day off work to come here, and that very act was an expression of freedom that they never could have done during the era of slavery,” he explained.

It was a ritual of remembrance that is now itself remembered by a plaque in Hampton Park marking the first Memorial Day.

This tradition continues to thrive in cemeteries of all sizes across the country. Until World War I, Civil War soldiers were solely honored on this holiday. Now, all Americans who’ve served are observed.

The Battle of Gettysburg fought on July 1–3, 1863, was the turning point of the Civil War for one main reason: General Robert E. Lee’s plan was to invade the North and force an immediate end to the war and that plan to destroy our country failed at Gettysburg.

Following his victory at Chancellorsville, a confident Confederate General Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River into Union territory in June Lee had invaded the North the prior year only to be repelled at Antietam, but on this occasion his army was at the peak of its
strength as it pressed across the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania.

A victory at Gettysburg would have launched Confederate forces into our Union territories. They planned to seize food and much-needed clothing in the prosperous region of southern Pennsylvania.

Then Lee would have attacked cities such as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Baltimore, Maryland, and if the proper circumstances had presented themselves, Lee’s army would surely have surrounded, and occupied, the nation’s capital. The federal government would have been disabled, and high government officials, including President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), would have been captured or they would have been forced to flee and form a Government in exile.

The United States we celebrate today would not exist we would have been forced to accept peace with the Confederate States of America. The existence of a pro-slavery nation in one half of North America might have been made permanent.

But the union army was victorious. Lee led his defeated army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia. Between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers from both armies were casualties, killed or wounded, in the three-day battle, this was the most costly battle in all of US history.

Our Union Army prevailed and never again would the Confederacy regain its momentum and push as deeply into Union territory, which is why many historians consider Gettysburg the “high water mark of the rebellion.”

Overall the estimates of civil war casualties have been revised upward and the most recent research suggests that over 750 thousand American Soldiers died in the civil war. That is a far higher number than in all other foreign wars combined. Given the moving nature of our Presidents speech and the nature of that conflict it is my honor to repeat the address given at the Gettysburg National Cemetery on Nov 19 1863.

Here is the speech that President Lincoln gave to commemorate that fateful battle that helped to decide the fate of our country.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”