Memorial Day — a day to enjoy the outdoors, picnics, ball games and other moments of leisure. Today, we call them “down-time” days or “unplugged.”
But the origins of Memorial Day go back to May 1, 1865, when a group of former slaves — African Americans — reburied 257 Union soldiers that had been buried in a mass grave — and who had died under unspeakable conditions in a makeshift prison camp at the site of the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, SC. Each received a “proper burial” in gratitude for giving their lives so that others may be free.
This day of honor is especially personal to my family. Our ancestor, Darwin Olney (my great-great grandfather), was a Union soldier (Michigan) who served in the Civil War, but died in a Confederate prison camp — Salisbury Prison — in Salisbury, NC — under the same unspeakable conditions as those who were encamped in Charleston.
At the time of his death, he was 39 years old, a teacher, a husband, and father of eight children, five of which survived beyond infancy.
You see, we know him well.
He wrote dozens upon dozens of letters to his wife during his years of service to the Union. Those original letters survived, unearthed by our family historian, Kelly Beach, and painstakingly transcribed and technologically preserved.
In those letters, he spoke of the varied countryside through which the soldiers traveled, often pointing out the hospitality and kindness frequently bestowed upon them by Southern families — even those who had family members serving in the Confederate Army. The composition and eloquence of his letters spoke to his educational level. As a teacher, it would have been natural for him to observe, intellectualize, and thereby describe his surroundings — and he did it well. There were days of frustration, days of joy, and days of loneliness and sadness. All of this was Darwin’s gift to us, now, more than 151 years later.
So, as we celebrate what was then “Decoration Day,” which is now known as “Memorial Day,” it is a time of reflection. A time to humble ourselves to those who gave the ultimate so that others could be free. Freedom always comes with its price. Parents who lost their child, widows who lost their beloved husbands, and children who would live with only one parent. Most of them never got to say “goodbye.”
Pray for peace, pray for enlightenment … and honor those who have fallen in the name of freedom. In God — We Trust.