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Lost no more: the story of the first Memorial Day

Posted by Thomas Nephew on June 2nd, 2010

One might say that one of the most remarkable events of the Civil War happened a few weeks after it ended — and in Charleston, South Carolina.  This Memorial Day, that event — the first utterly original, deeply moving Memorial Day — was remembered, and I had the good luck and rare privilege to attend that commemoration.


Union prisoners burying ground
Charleston, S.C., 1865. (George Barnard)
Library of Congress

The story, briefly, is that a Union prisoner of war camp was established in 1864 on the “Washington Racecourse,” the horse race track of the city’s high society, to house prisoners moved there from the notorious Andersonville camp. Some 260 Union soldiers died there of exposure and disease in the following months, and were buried in a mass grave.

When Charleston fell, rejoicing black Charlestonians not only staged a parade with a coffin named “Slavery” with the slogan “Fort Sumter Dug Its Grave”, but also organized to properly rebury and honor those Union prisoners. Yale University history professor David Blight, who rediscovered the story some ten years ago, described it this way (in a piece for the Newark Ledger):

Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

At 9 am on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathering in the cemetery enclosure; a childrens’ choir sang “We’ll Rally around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. No record survives of which biblical passages rung out in the warm spring air, but the spirit of Leviticus 25 was surely present at those burial rites: “for it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you… in the year of this jubilee he shall return every man unto his own possession.”

It was the first Memorial Day, and — as Professor Blight put it in remarks on Monday — it amounted to a declaration by black Americans that the Civil War had been about slavery, and that the defeat of the Confederacy amounted to a second American Revolution and a birth of freedom for millions of former slaves.

And then the event was forgotten, at least by white Charleston.  The soldiers were reburied elsewhere, the grounds of the former race course converted to what is now Hampton Park.  Again, Blight:

[A] measure of how white Charlestonians suppressed from memory this founding in favor of their own creation of the practice later came fifty-one years afterward, when the president of the Ladies Memorial Association of Charleston received an inquiry about the May 1, 1865 parade. A United Daughters of the Confederacy official from New Orleans wanted to know if it was true that blacks had engaged in such a burial rite. Mrs. S. C. Beckwith responded tersely: “I regret that I was unable to gather any official information in answer to this.” In the struggle over memory and meaning in any society, some stories just get lost while others attain mainstream dominance.


Charleston Claims First Memorial Day Celebration,”
WCIV (ABC-4, Charleston)

But this particular story is lost no more.  On Monday, Memorial Day 2010, the city of Charleston took official notice of the first Memorial Day (or “Decoration Day,” in the language of the day) 145 years and one month earlier, with Mayor Riley, David Blight, and College of Charleston history professor Bernard Powers making remarks, and joining Hampton Park horticulturalist and activist Judith Hines in unveiling a plaque commemorating that first Memorial Day.  I’ve included some local TV news coverage of the events and a slideshow of the photos I took.

I happened to be there because I had corresponded with Professor Blight about my review of his 2001 book “Race and Reunion,” and mentioned that I was visiting Charleston soon for an annual rendezvous with my parents there during the Spoleto Music Festival we enjoy attending.  I added that I planned to take my daughter to Hampton Park and tell her about that first Memorial Day that he had described in that book.  Professor Blight (who appreciated my review) wrote back immediately to say that I could join him and the mayor there if I went at 3pm on Memorial Day.

So there I was, now with my wife and daughter and both parents along as well, among a crowd of around a hundred black and white onlookers.  I didn’t take notes on the speeches, but all three were excellent.  From listening to his lectures and reading his books, I know Blight is always an eloquent and engaging speaker on the subjects of histories lost and found, and on the struggle for racial equality and justice, and this Memorial Day was no exception.  I was also impressed by the other two speakers; Dr. Powers made the point how impressive the organization of that first Memorial Day was, and discussed how it fit with the history of black churches in Charleston.  As with Dr. Powers, I wish I could re-read Mayor Riley’s remarks; I knew nothing about him before yesterday either, and came away very impressed at how seriously he took the occasion, and how eloquently he conveyed his appreciation of the day’s events.


See below for the text of the memorial plaque; click “forward” arrow for
slideshow.

For me to visit Fort Sumter one day, reflect on the events of the first Memorial Day the next, and then participate in a kind of resurrection of that day was an experience that is hard to put into words.  I’ve always been convinced that knowing and understanding history (as best as one can) is vitally important.  But I’ve never seen so “close up” how much of a difference it can make to recover history and restore it to good use among good people.  It must have been a supremely satisfying moment for Dr. Blight, and judging by the sustained applause (and many an “mm hmm” and “amen” from the assembled crowd), a vindication and new point of pride for many in both the black and white communities of Charleston as well.

I understand Charlestonians like to say they live where “the Cooper and Ashley rivers meet to form Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.”  Now that’s mainly meant to raise a smile.  Yet it now seems to me it may actually undersell that place — once all of it is considered.   Not “merely” an ocean, but history itself seems to form there and return there, time and again, like a needle stitching and restitching the same tapestry – with slavery, with war, with defeat, with liberty, with amnesia, and now with remembrance. It was quite an experience to witness that.

=====

OTHER ACCOUNTS: Reclaiming history, Derek Legette, Charleston Post and Courier 6/1/10; The first Memorial Day, Brian Hicks, Charleston Post and Courier, 5/24/09.
EDITS, 6/3: Links to Powers, Hines (video interview) added; College of Charleston, not Charleston College.

THE TEXT OF THE MEMORIAL PLAQUE:

At the time of the Civil War, Hampton Park was the site of the Washington Racecourse, which was owned by the South Carolina Jockey Club and was one of the most famous racetracks of the antebellum South. In late 1864, this site became a large open-air prison for thousands of Union troops evacuated from the Andersonville, GA prison in advance of Sherman’s March to the Sea. Before Charleston fell in February 1865, several hundred of the prisoners died and were buried in mass graves. In an effort led by African-American churches in April 1865, the dead were reinterred in orderly graves enclosed by a picket fence. Over the gate was written: Martyrs of the Race Course.

On May 1, 1865, a parade in honor of the prisoners of war who died here took place with ten thousand participants, according to contemporary accounts. Nearly three thousand were school children from the new Freedman’s Bureau Schools. The children led the parade, carrying armloads of flowers and singing patriotic songs. They were followed by women’s organizations, church leaders, Unionists, recently emancipated slaves, and Union troops, including the 54th Massachusetts. The soldiers were later buried in Beaufort and Florence National Cemeteries or in their hometowns. Annual events to honor the dead of both sides of the Civil War eventually became known as Memorial Day. The event in what is now Hampton Park is acknowledged by most historians to be the first Memorial Day in the United States of America.

3 Responses to “Lost no more: the story of the first Memorial Day”

  1. Nell Says:

    What’s happened to your Delicious (sp?) feed over in the right column?

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    I don’t know, I’ll try to fix that. Meanwhile, the base address is http://del.icio.us/thomasn528; I’ve added a few since yesterday.

    I was away at the beach (Chincoteague) since July 1 and didn’t make much of an effort to go online, obviously.

  3. Thomas Nephew Says:

    It appears to be a delicious.com screwup, judging by my ability to substitute other feeds in at the same spot with no problem. The correct RSS subscription address, according to delicious.com, is http://feeds.delicious.com/v2/rss/thomasn528. But that doesn’t seem to play nicely with WordPress right now for some reason. Maybe one of my recent links has a poorly formed URL, I seem to remember that can have an effect. Or maybe I just remember suspecting that.

    UPDATE, 7/24: the “delicious” feed is back up now for a couple of days — but not because of anything I did.

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