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That First Decoration Day

Memorial Day marks the beginning of the summer vacation season. Where I live, it means lots of tourists from now until Labor Day. When I think of Memorial Day, I think about the men and women who have paid the ultimate price on the battlefield protecting our freedom as americans.  I think about the beautiful and serene Bolestown Cemetery, where lies the remains of many of my ancestors from before and after the civil war.  My great, great, great, great grandfather, James Boles, is buried there. He was a revolutionary war soldier, who fought in the battle of Kings Mountain. His son, my great, great, great grandfather, John Boles, is also buried there beside his wife, Matilda. He was a Union soldier in the service of Tinker Dave Beaty's Independent Scouts. She was Tinker Dave's sister. John's son, George, my great great grandfather, was also a member of Tinker Dave's group, as was his brother Robert. They were not killed during the war, but no doubt witnessed a few skirmishes where soldiers or civilians were killed.

Decoration Day, as it was first known, was first enacted to honor fallen Union soldiers of the civil war. One of the earliest known observances happened after former slaves had converted a mass grave at the former Washington Race Course, now Hampton Park, in Charleston, South Carolina, into a cemetery. The race course had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp. When the hostilities ended, the former slaves exhumed the bodies and reinterred them properly. They built a fence around the graveyard and declared it a Union graveyard. On May 1, 1865, a crowd of up to ten thousand people, mainly african-americans, marched to the location for sermons, singing, and a picnic. It was the first Decoration Day.

Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest
On this Field of the Grounded Arms
Where foes no more molest
Nor sentry's shot alarms

Ye have slept on the ground before
And started to your feet
At the cannon's sudden roar
Or the drum's redoubling beat

But in this camp of Death
No sound your slumber breaks
Here is no fevered breath
No wound that bleeds and aches

All is repose and peace
Untrampled lies the sod
The shouts of battle cease
It is the Truce of God

Rest, comrades, rest and sleep
The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free

Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers
Yours has the suffering been
The memory shall be ours

Decoration Day - by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


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