Monday, May 25, 2015

Decoration Day

Happy Memorial Day!

As I am wont to do, I am inclined to think about the origins of holidays on holidays. This one began in the wake of the Civil War - officialy in the north in 1868; less officially, and at various times and places in the south in 1866 or so. And one of the first instances came in Charleston, South Carolina, where a large number of freed slaves (mainly) gathered to pay tribute to the Union soldiers who had died at the Hampton Park Race Course, which had been used as a prison camp during the war. The dead had been buried there - the freedmen cleaned and landscaped the grounds and gathered for a ceremony on May 1, 1865, to honor the Martyrs of the Race Course. There may or may not have been any direct connection between that and the commemorations to come, but it set the patterns - parades, memorialization of the war dead - and I suppose an attempt to claim the holiday for a political purpose. In this case a good purpose - the end of slavery and preservation of the union. But in coming years, the south would try to claim it as a celebration of the "lost cause".

Over the years, the original significance of the day has been replaced by a more general day of remembrance for the war dead - we do have more wars to remember now. That is a good thing to remember - but it is good, too, to go back to the origins. I admit too that I feel this more strongly on Decoration Day (and Armistice Day) than most holidays - the Civil War is, really, the foundational moment of the United States. We existed for 87 odd years before that, but the Civil War is what defined us (or at least, defined us as something worth being.) We live with its effects more than we live with the effects of any other event in our history, even now. Which links it to Armistice Day - since WWI had this impact on the rest of the world. everything since - bigger or smaller - flows from the Great War, as it flows from the Civil War in this country. And so - keep in mind where this came from, and maybe, the cause behind it.

Here, then, is Orson Welles, explaining and reciting The Battle Hymn of the Republic:

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