noImage of Unknown Soldiers' headstones at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
I realize that I missed writing a blog on Monday, but it was Memorial Day and even bloggers should take a day off.
Since this is Writing Wednesday, I have another sample from my books. But first I want to talk a bit about Memorial Day. The commemoration of those who died while in uniform began after the Civil War. The War Between the States left a total of 600,000 to 800,000 dead in its wake, a shocking number. So, it is no wonder that services and parades honoring the dead emerged after the war. The first national observance took place on 30 May 1868 and was held in Arlington Cemetery.
But before that date, starting in 1866, towns across the nation began holding local “decoration days.”. Then, in 1996, an even earlier date was uncovered in a Harvard University archives. David Blight, professor of American history at Yale University, was doing research for a book on the Civil War when he was invited by a curator at the Houghton Library to look at “two boxes of unsorted material from Union veterans” (Roos).
I don’t know how to explain how unusual and exciting it is for a historian to have the opportunity of digging into something that no other researcher has seen. The best I can do is to tell you to imagine finding an ancient lost city that no one else has come upon, or unearthing a treasure chest that everyone else thought was non-existent. It is a remarkable – and rare – experience.
What David Blight found was mind-blowing. Here’s the excerpt from Dave Roo’s article about his discovery:
“There was a file labeled ‘First Decoration Day,’” remembers Blight, still amazed at his good fortune. “And inside on a piece of cardboard was a narrative handwritten by an old veteran, plus a date referencing an article in The New York Tribune. That narrative told the essence of the story that I ended up telling in my book, of this march on the race track in 1865.”
The race track in question was the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, South Carolina. In the late stages of the Civil War, the Confederate army transformed the formerly posh country club into a makeshift prison for Union captives. More than 260 Union soldiers died from disease and exposure while being held in the race track’s open-air infield. Their bodies were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstands.
When Charleston fell and Confederate troops evacuated the badly damaged city, freed slaves remained. One of the first things those emancipated men and women did was to give the fallen Union prisoners a proper burial. They exhumed the mass grave and reinterred the bodies in a new cemetery with a tall whitewashed fence inscribed with the words: “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
And then on May 1, 1865, something even more extraordinary happened. According to two reports that Blight found in The New York Tribune and The Charleston Courier, a crowd of 10,000 people, mostly freed slaves with some white missionaries, staged a parade around the race track. Three thousand black schoolchildren carried bouquets of flowers and sang “John Brown’s Body.” Members of the famed 54th Massachusetts and other black Union regiments were in attendance and performed double-time marches. Black ministers recited verses from the Bible.
So there you have it. The first Memorial Day was held on 1 May 1865, not quite one month after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. But the date is not nearly as important as the context. As Blight says, “the fact that this occurred in Charleston at the cemetery site for the Union dead in a city where the Civil war had begun and that it was organized and done by African-American former slaves… gives it such poignancy.” (Roos)
When I was working on Walk by Faith, I wanted to give readers a sense of what it might have been like to be in battle and in field hospitals during the American Civil War. Had it not been for the war, young men of the time most likely would have remained in their hometown, taken up a career or a trade, gotten married, had children, and died there. The expectation of having a normal lifespan was exploded by the horrors and struggles thrust upon both civilians and soldiers. Having a loved one die far from home or imagining oneself die away from home became a shocking reality.
The war took so many lives, and I knew that having two young men (Patrick and Edgar) enlisted in the army and two other men (Eli and Carson) as war correspondents meant someone most likely would be injured or killed. As an author, I had to make a difficult decision for the sake of realism, since having all four characters make it back alive probably would not have happened in real life.
The story I have posted below takes place in a field hospital in Salem Church during the Chancellorsville Campaign. While retreating with the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, Eli and Carson try to cross the Rappahannock River at Banks Ford. The wagon is stuck in the mud, so Eli gets out and pushes from behind, while Carson handles the horse’s reins. The wagon is freed, but Sadie (the horse) is spooked when an artillery shell lands a little too close for comfort. She takes off with Carson on board and Eli is left behind. He wades back to shore, only to have an artillery shell land close enough to throw him in the air. When he hits the ground, he is knocked unconscious. The scene opens when Eli awakens in Salem Church.
It’s a poignant, painful scene to me, one which sums up how the war’s technology was far ahead of the medical world’s ability to treat the wounds it inflicted. The the shock and pain Eli feels, and later his anger at God and his sense of futility are all very real. War is not pretty. Neither is it inspiring. But sometimes it’s made necessary by humans’ inability to communicate or by their refusal to communicate, or perhaps a bit of both.
Memorial Day is past, friends, but we should remember with thanks those who put themselves in harm’s way to protect us. We owe them so much.
I’ll be back on Friday with a brief history of 20th century Evangelicalism.
Grace and peace!
Roos, Dave. “One of the Earliest Memorial Day Ceremonies was Held by Freed Slaves.” History.com. Published 24 May 2019. Updated 28 May 2019. Accessed 28 May 2019.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder