Memorial Day carries special meaning here

Memorial Day holds a special meaning in Beaufort County that goes well beyond the holiday's tradition of opening the tourism season that is so vital to the economy.

Reporting by Brian Hicks of The Post and Courier in Charleston tells us that Memorial Day traditions began here in the Lowcountry.

It was on a Monday morning, May 1, 1865, in Charleston.

The ceremony attracted some 10,000 people, most of them African-Americans. They came to the Washington Race Course where 257 fresh graves filled the infield.

The new graves replaced shallow graves for Union soldiers who died in a prison-of-war camp on the race track grounds. On this infield, now part of Hampton Park, the planters and the high society held galas before the Civil War, which had just ended.

On this day, something called Decoration Day took place there. It was a ceremony that would start a tradition known as Memorial Day.

The old Charleston Daily Courier describes a beautiful scene, with nearly everyone present bearing a handsome bouquet of flowers.

The newspaper reported:

"The exercises commenced with reading a Psalm, singing a hymn, followed by a prayer.

"Colored children, about 2,800 in number, marched first over the burial ground, strewing the graves with their flowers as they passed."

After them came several groups of adults, followed by people generally. Also in the procession were several Union regiments, including the 104th and 35th "colored regiments," as well as the famous 54th Massachusetts.

"While standing around the graves, the school children sang 'The Star Spangled Banner,' 'America' and 'Rally Round the Flag,' and while marching, 'John Brown's Body.'

"The graves at the close of the procession had the appearance of a mass of roses."

Speeches and sermons were followed by a picnic.

Later, those 257 Union soldiers would be reinterred here in our own Beaufort National Cemetery, where they will be remembered in a ceremony at noon today, along with veterans of the wars that followed.

Decoration Day was for many years a highlight of the year for African-Americans in Beaufort. People came by the trainload to town for festivities, parades, food, speeches and entertainment.

In that spirit, the Original Gullah Festival was created 25 years ago for this holiday weekend.

In that spirit, Beaufort's Memorial Day Parade will begin its traditional march through downtown at 10 a.m. today.

In that spirit, W. Brown Marshel's 10th Memorial Day Community Picnic will take place from 1 to 4 p.m. today at the funeral home on Greene Street.

And in that spirit, the Women's Relief Corps and Sons and Daughters of War Veterans were to gather on Sunday afternoon at the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in Beaufort to cast flowers in the water in memory of service members who died at sea.

Memorial Day will be commemorated in many other ways around Beaufort County.

The Col. Jimmie H. Leach Memorial Chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart will hold a service at 9:30 a.m. today at Beaufort National Cemetery.

And Memorial Day services will be held at 10 a.m. today at town square in Sun City Hilton Head and at 10:30 a.m. at Veterans Memorial Park on Shelter Cove Lane on Hilton Head Island.

As the Lowcountry children showed us 146 years ago in Charleston, freedom comes at a great price. Today, we vow to never forget that and to give thanks.