Yesterday among the many Memorial Day tributes I saw on social media, I was particularly struck by one from the Reconstruction Era National Monument with a link to a fine article from 2011 by one of our most respected historians, David Blight, about the interracial origins of the holiday. As Blight ably demonstrates, the earliest observance (of the many claimed to have been the "first" Memorial Day) was a parade and rally in Charleston, SC in May 1865, when the smoke of the Civil War had barely begun to clear. It marked the reinterment of more than 200 Union soldiers who had died in the city's Confederate prisoner-of-war camp.
(And for those keeping track, the Union soldiers who didn't die in the camp at the Charleston racetrack were sent on to a hastily-constructed outdoor prison near the little railroad depot of Florence, where some 3,000 of them perished in the fall and winter of 1864-1865. The site, barely a mile from my house, is the core of the Florence National Cemetery.)
Today, as ideologies of disunity and death pose an existential threat to our Great Republic, "the last best hope of earth," I remember those big-hearted, far-sighted black people--Gullah people whose first language wasn't even English, mind you, and whose status after the war was far from decided--who labored to dig up, properly rebury, and befittingly memorialize white Union dead in Charleston. By doing so, they claimed their place as American citizens and proclaimed the birth of a new, biracial democracy. Their actions reconsecrated the American flag, from a symbol of slavery and oppression to one of freedom and brotherhood. It was a powerful social and political vision, which even the oppression of the Jim Crow regime could not entirely extinguish.
Recently I've seen what seems like more press coverage of our contested memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction than ever--from the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House two years ago to the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans and Charlottesville two weeks ago. (I have also written about it here, here, and here.)For a people haunted by the legacies of slavery, I think the lessons from the first Memorial Day are still apt. Then as now, the question isn't just what we choose to do with the Stars and Bars, but more importantly, what kind of country we choose to make under the Stars and Stripes.