Thursday, May 23, 2013

Outside the Ivory Tower: Memorial Day

At this time of year, in what used to be a far more solemn occasion, we honor our war dead. The other name for this day, Decoration Day, has fallen out of favor as few today decorate their graves or pray at the cemeteries for those who have kept us free.  Someone who had once visited the Normandy Beach cemetery told me that no words could express her emotions as the graves disappeared over the horizon.  

Memorial Day started spontaneously during and after the Civil War.  While Waterloo, NY got the official nod as the first, many communities could claim that honor. One was Charlestown, South Carolina, then called the “city of the dead”. The Washington Race Course had been converted to a POW camp where about 257 dead Union soldiers were thrown together into a series of shallow graves. When the war ended about 10,000 grateful former slaves marched to the site. Some of them remained and after two weeks of gruesome work they had exhumed the bodies. They gave every veteran a proper burial, calling them the Martyrs of the Race Course. They called themselves Friends of the Martyrs and the Patriotic Association of Colored Men. Almost 3,000 children, the first generation of freedom, marched to the finished cemetery singing John Brown’s Body and the Star Spangled Banner. They threw enough flowers to create hill of rose petals. Joined by other participants including missionaries and union soldiers, black and white, they sang a hymn and prayed.

This is a sharp contrast to mob violence rallying cry of “get whitey”, critical race theory and the race baiting of Al Sharpton and many others. When we honor those who died we should not forget why they died. Politically profitable race hatred is not among the reasons.

Copyright 2013, Mark L. Bennett

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