The Pardu

Jon S. Randal: Memorial Day And US History

In Civil War Dead, Jon S. Randal, Memorial Day And US History, William Harvey Carney on May 24, 2015 at 9:56 AM


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Originally called Decoration Day, the last Monday in May has a special meaning as a nation memorializes those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Death associated with maintaining a free nation has no equal as we look back on American form its inception.

Jon S. Randal has revised the national holiday and reminds of our storied past.
Jon S. Randal


May 22, 2015

It was a Monday morning in May. It was one of, if not, the largest group of black Americans, at that point in time, gathered together to march, to pay respects to the dead, to remember the sacrifices, and to honor the meaning of “freedom.”


It was 1865, and thousands of former slaves and freedpeople, led a procession of 10,000 through the Civil War ruins of Charleston unto the grounds of the old Charleston Race Course, once a symbol of wealth, power, and influence, now a horrible reminder of a war, pitting brother against brother, left by the Confederate Army as a prison, where 257 Union soldiers had died there, left in shallow graves, without coffins.

The once beautiful city had long been abandoned by many of the white residents, left ravaged by the war. Among the first Union troops to enter the city was the Twenty First U. S. Colored Infantry. When the shallow graves were discovered at the old race course, some 28 black workmen went to the site to bury the dead properly.

And, then the word spread, bringing together the former slaves, freed people, and white missionaries and teachers, nearly 10,000 people in all, marching in harmony in an event that was described by a newspaper reporter as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

Nearly 3,000 children of former slaves joined the procession, strew flowers on the graves and sang “John Brown’s Body,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” and “America.” By the end, the graves looked like a massive mound of rose petals.

Another reporter wrote: “when all had left, the holy mounds — the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them — were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen; and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond … there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy.”

Some would call it the first Memorial Day, several years before it became a national holiday. Others, of course, continue to dispute it, denying that one of the most beloved holidays in this country, remembering the courage and bravery of those who sacrificed their lives to fight for freedom, may have been started by a group of former slaves.

I first posted about this in May of 2012 after reading a NY Times article reprinted by Zinn Education) by Yale History Professor David W. Blight (which I will post in comments to give him the proper credit.) Along with other sources, the information, used with the original artwork from the article (artist Owen Freeman, with credit, also in comments) gained traction in social media to the point that a year later, Snopes had to verify the authenticity of the information (see comments.)

But, I’m not re-sharing this information to debate whether or not it was actually the first Memorial Day, I am re-sharing this to remember the bond that we as Americans have growing this nation together, the many sacrifices we shared as a people and as a nation, the mistakes we need to acknowledge and move forward from, and the respect we could have for one another despite our differences, the same type of respect and love exemplified by those unknown marchers and soldiers 150 years ago.


Earlier today CNN also offered a three minute segment on the origin of memorial Day. linked here.

Memorial Day is supposed to honor and remember our heroes. On this day, May 23, 1900, nearly 40 years after the fact, William Harvey Carney, a former slave who became a Sergeant in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, finally received the Medal of Honor, becoming the first African American to receive the Medal which is the nation’s highest military honor. His heroics, outlined below, was depicted in the movie, “Glory.”

Jon S. Randal's photo.


He was born a slave, yet he would fight bravely for his country. Struggling against a lethal barrage of cannon and rifle fire, he fought his way to the top of the fort’s parapet, only to see the flag holder shot down. He grabbed the flag before it fell and planted it. He was shot, but held on. When the troops fell back, he brought the flag with him again, refusing to let it go. Under a fierce fire, he was severely wounded again.


He courageously made his way back to the Union lines. Before collapsing, he finally gave up the flag to his regiment, proudly saying, “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!”

His name was William Harvey Carney, a Sergeant serving the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. It took nearly 40 years, but he was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor on this day, May 23, 1900. He became the first African American to receive the Medal which is the nation’s highest military honor.

The battle for which he took part in was the July 18, 1863, assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina, which was depicted in the movie, “Glory.”

When asked about his heroic actions, Carney simply said, “I only did my duty.”

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