Whenever Memorial Day, D-Day, and July 4 come around, I often think of the words of John Adams: “Be it remembered, however, that liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned, and bought it for us, at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood.”
Every time I remember the men and women who have shed their blood for the freedom and security of my family, my friends, and myself, I’m likewise reminded of Jesus’s powerful words: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
So as we Americans officially begin the summer season, it can be easy to forget the cost that was paid by so few for the sake of so many, enabling us to enjoy such privileges, even in the midst of these troubling times. Amid the joy and relief that comes with the beginning of summer 2021—especially after a long pandemic—I wanted to share a powerful story I recently discovered about the historical origins of Memorial Day.
Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1971. But its origins go back to the aftermath of the Civil War, which to this day remains our nation’s bloodiest conflict.
That’s where I learned about a remarkable event that took place at a racetrack in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1865. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had just surrendered weeks before. The war would be officially and completely over in June, but for all intents and purposes, it was done.
The racetrack was called the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club. During the war, the Confederacy had used it to imprison Union captives. Nearly 300 of them died of diseases and exposure in the open-air prison. None of them received a proper burial—instead, their bodies were thrown into a nearby mass grave.
Once the war had ended, however, some people—former slaves—found this to be totally unacceptable. Many of them went to the racetrack, exhumed the bodies, and gave them a proper burial in a new cemetery on the same site. They put a whitewashed fence around the cemetery and inscribed the words “Martyrs of the Race Course” on it. These former slaves knew that these men had died for their liberation, and they honored their sacrifices just miles away from the very spot where the Civil War had begun.
As reported in The New York Tribune and The Charleston Courier, just a week later, on May 1, 1865, more people came—about 10,000 of them. Almost all of them were African Americans, mostly freed slaves, while some were white missionaries. Three thousand black children brought bouquets of flowers to honor those who had died, singing “John Brown’s Body”—a popular Union war song about the famous abolitionist John Brown—while doing so. Black ministers were present and recited portions of Scripture. Veterans of various black regiments that served during the war were also present and performed double-time marches in honor of their fallen comrades.
This event was the first-ever “Memorial Day” commemoration in our country’s history. Freed slaves organized this and similar events at least a year before other American cities, and three years before it was observed on a national level.
In 1966, the federal government officially recognized Waterloo, New York, as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. But thanks to historians who discovered this earlier story, many now recognize that this annual “holy day” started not in northern cities among mostly white Americans, but among black Americans who had been liberated by the soldiers they honored, both black and white. It was their gratitude for those who had offered the ultimate sacrifice for their freedom that got Memorial Day started.
I was encouraged to find this story, for it shows how truly empty, ignorant, and prideful the race-hustlers of all colors really are. They who have never been in chains, who are rich by world and historical standards, who have enjoyed more freedom than any generation in history, lecture the rest of us on why America is so unworthy of respect and admiration. All the while, it was former slaves who honored the sacrifices and the flag they dishonor as a matter of course. Those who lived in chains knew the value of our country, its flag, and the men and women who have died under its colors for our freedom—not because it was perfect, but because of what it stood for and because of what it was striving to become. Those who enslaved them were the ones who fled the star-spangled banner and the principles of 1776, while those who liberated them fought for that flag and those principles. It’s no wonder they honored the ones who were true to America’s founding principles and ideals.
What a stinging rebuke to those whose pride and narcissism are daily compounded by their even more deplorable ignorance—a brew so toxic that many have abandoned that noble and just love of country that even those who suffered actual oppression in actual chains never forgot. It was they who started Memorial Day, after all.
May their example inspire those of us who have never lived in chains to never be duped by the lie that hating one’s country is the way to make it better.
Joshua Charles is a former White House speechwriter for Vice President Mike Pence, a No. 1 New York Times best-selling author, historian, columnist, writer/ghostwriter, and public speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaTCharles or see JoshuaTCharles.com.