22 May 2008

The Memorial Day Tradition in the Beaufort District

Beaufort County residents love to boast that life here is rather unique in many ways. Our local peculiarities are diverse and plentiful: the Spanish New World was administered from Parris Island for a time during the 16th century; we have one of the greatest variations of high and low tide along the Atlantic coast; we established the first school for the newly freed slaves of South Carolina (Penn Normal School on St. Helena Island); and we used local bounty to create the lowcountry's favorite feast, Frogmore Stew. And yet, some things continue to surprise newcomers.

Beaufort District's Memorial Day Traditions
Beaufort County has the distinction of celebrating two Memorial Days each year: "Confederate Memorial Day" is celebrated in South Carolina (and North Carolina) on May 10th; and the Federal holiday, "Memorial Day," is celebrated on the last Monday of May. Here in Beaufort, the national Memorial Day is sometimes referred to as "Yankee Memorial Day."
Civil War Lore: Memorial Day began as a remembrance of the fallen soldiers and sailors of the American Civil War. On this special day, family and friends would carefully tend and decorate the gravestones and sites of their resting soldiers. The holiday was originally referred to as "Decoration Day."
Since Beaufort County raised troops for both the Confederate States and the United States, the dual remembrances celebrated here are historically appropriate. The vast majority of the white soldiers served with the Confederacy while many area black men joined the Union's 1st, 2nd, and 3rd South Carolina Volunteer Regiments. No other South Carolina county experienced the Civil War or its aftermath in quite the same way as it unfolded in Beaufort County. No other South Carolina county contributed such large percentages of its total population to the two warring sides. And therefore, it should come as little surprise, that celebration and commemoration of those who fought in the Civil War should be different here as well.

United States, Federal Memorial Day
In early May of 1868, General John Logan (USA) in his capacity with the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR, a Union Civil War veterans group) declared the first "Decoration Day" for May 30, 1868.
Civil War Lore: There does not appear to have been any particular significance to choosing the date May 30th. It is believed, however, that the date was chosen because, by this date, flowers nationwide should be in bloom.
On Decoration Day, the GAR encouraged people to honor the Union Civil War dead by "strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion." Locally, May 1868 was especially significant because of the reinterment of Union POWs from the "Racecourse" prison camp near Charleston into the Beaufort National Cemetery and the installation of an obelisk in the Beaufort National Cemetery dedicated to their memory by the widow of a Unionist Charleston merchant, Mrs. Eliza Potter.

Beaufort County had a high proportion of black Union veterans. Black folks from Charleston, Savannah, Augusta, and neighboring islands would catch the train, oxcart, wagons, or boats and visit Beaufort for the speeches, music, pageantry
and remembrance ceremonies at the Beaufort National Cemetery. The celebration expanded with the influx of Marines training at Parris Island, many of whom were white Northerners with prior experience celebrating Decoration Day.

Confederate Memorial Day
While the purpose of celebration for Confederate Memorial Day (honoring fallen soldiers) differs little from Federal Memorial Day, the specific day celebrated often varies from state to state. South Carolina (and North Carolina) celebrates Confederate Memorial Day on May 10th of each year. The Carolinas chose the death date (May 10, 1863) of Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson, Confederate general, to commemorate the service of all Confederate soldiers. It is perhaps ironic that on May 10, 1865, the first (and only) President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, was captured by Union troops.

The True Purpose of Memorial Day
W. J. Thomas, Jr., a local boy who became a journalist for the Herald Tribune in New York City, wrote in 1929 about his hometown celebration:
"Ancestral differences were tossed aside with mutual relief and patriotism, and the local white Republicans led the way as all together they arbitrated and decided to celebrate a modified Memorial Day, not for the victory of the North over the South but in remembrance of the reunion of the sister states and the restoration of national harmony." --Beaufort Gazette, June 13, 1929; p. 1.
Thus, Decoration Day, which originally commemorated the sacrifice of Union troops during the Civil War, was broadened into a commemoration of the sacrifice of all American soldiers and sailors who fought in the Spanish American War, the two World Wars, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, Desert Storm, or the present day military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Beaufort District Collection is a division of the Beaufort County Library, a department of Beaufort County Government of South Carolina.

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