Memorial Day originated at the end of the Civil War in Charleston, S.C. when former slaves organized a day to honor Union prisoners of war who had died in a racecourse used to incarcerate them. Over the coming years the tens of thousands of graves of Union soldiers buried in the South would be tended every year on Memorial Day by freedmen and freedwomen. The graves were despised by many Southern whites who saw the Union soldiers as invaders, but for the African Americans the Union soldiers were liberators who had ended slavery.
A quarter of those soldiers’ graves belonged to immigrants. Immigrants had made up half of the professional soldiers in the United States army before the war, and nearly half-a-million served in the Union army. Many of them fought beside black units that more than 180,000 African Americans served in.
After the war ended, the Civil War generation passed the 14th Amendment, which overturned the Dred Scott decision and made blacks into citizens. The 14th Amendment also created the principle that children born in the United States are citizens and that naturalized citizens are civically equal to the native born. That amendment has continuing reverberations even today. Its promise of equality was the basis of the legalization of same-sex marriage.
During World War I, immigrants joined the army in such large numbers that a Statue of Liberty Division was organized and sent to France. Many of its soldiers were immigrants. In fact, there were so many Italians in the unit that German troops opposite them thought that part of the Italian army had been moved to France. As during the Civil War, orders were given in the native languages of the immigrant soldiers.
This Memorial Day, as we remember those who died in our nation’s wars, let us also remember these words of an immigrant soldier of the Irish Brigade who died in the Civil War:
“This is my country as much as the man that was born on the soil and so it is to every man who comes to this country and becomes a citizen… I have as much interest in the maintenance of the government and laws and integrity of the nation as any other man… This war, with all its evils, with all its errors and mismanagement is a war in which the people of all nations have a vital interest. This is the first test of a modern free government in the act of sustaining itself against internal enemies and matured rebellion. All men who love free government and equal laws are watching the crisis to see if a republic can sustain itself in such a case. If it fail then the hope of millions fail and the designs and wishes of all tyrants will succeed.”