MEMORIAL DAY: 5-26-2008

Fort logan national cemetery 5.jpg

Following the end of the Civil War, many communities set aside a day to mark the end of the war or as a memorial to those who had died. Some of the places creating an early memorial day include Charleston, South Carolina; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; Carbondale, Illinois; Columbus, Mississippi; many communities in Vermont; and some two dozen other cities and towns. These observances eventually coalesced around Decoration Day, honoring the Union dead, and the several Confederate Memorial Days.

According to Professor David Blight of the Yale University History Department, the first memorial day was observed in 1865 by liberated slaves at the historic race track in Charleston. The site was a former Confederate prison camp as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who had died while captive. The freed slaves reinterred the dead Union soldiers from the mass grave to individual graves, fenced in the graveyard & built an entry arch declaring it a Union graveyard – a very daring thing to do in the South shortly after North’s victory. On May 30, 1886? the freed slaves returned to the graveyard with flowers they’d picked from the countryside & decorated the individual gravesites, thereby creating the 1st Decoration Day. A parade with thousands of freed blacks and Union soldiers was followed by patriotic singing and a picnic:


First Reading: The First Memorial Day by David W. Blight

“During the final year of the [Civil] war, the Confederate command in … [Charleston, South Carolina] had converted the planter’s Race Course (horse-racing track) into a prison. Union soldiers were kept in terrible conditions in the interior of the track, without tents or other coverings. At least 257 died from exposure and disease and were hastily buried without coffins in unmarked graves behind the former judge’s stand. After the fall of the city, Charleston’s blacks, many of whom had witnessed the sufferings at the horse-track prision, insisted on a proper burial of the Union dead. The symbolic power of the planter aristocracy’s Race Course (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. … [B]lacks planned a May Day ceremony that a New York Tribune correspondent called “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

The “First Decoration Day,” as this event came to be recognized in some circles in the North, involved an estimated ten thousand people, most of them black former slaves…. At nine o’clock in the morning on May 1, the procession to this special cemetery began as three thousand black schoolchildren (newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools) marched around the Race Course, each with an armload of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by three hundred black women representing the Patriotic Association, a group organized to distribute clothing and other goods among the freedpeople. The women carried baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses to the burial ground. The Mutual Aid Society, a benevolent association of black men, next marched in cadence around the track and into the cemetery, followed by large crowds of white and black citizens. All dropped their spring blossoms on the graves in a scene recorded by a newspaper correspondent: “when all had left, the holy mounds–the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them–were a mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen; and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond… there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy.” While the adults marched around the graves, the children were gathered in a nearby grove, where they sang “America,” “We’ll Rally around the Flag,” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The official dedication ceremony was conducted by the ministers of all the black churches in Charleston. With prayers, the reading of biblical passages, and the singing of spirituals, black Charlestonians gave birth to an American tradition. In so doing, they declared the meaning of the war in the most public way possible–by their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade of roses, lilacs, and marching feet on the old planter’s Race Course….

After the dedication, the crowds gathered at the Race Course grandstand to hear some thirty speeches by Union officers, local black ministers, and abolitionist missionaries…. Picnics ensued around the grounds, and in the afternoon, a full brigade of Union infantry, including the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts and Thirty-fifth and 104th U.S. Colored Troops, marched in double column around the martyr’s graves and held a drill on the infield of the Race Course. The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. But the struggle to own the meaning of Memorial Day in particular, and of Civil War memory in general, had only begun.”



“But such limitations do not release us from engaging filmmakers and helping them make good history. From my recent work on Civil War memory I came across a story that might provide an opening scene for some enterprising filmmaker eager to construct continuing answers to Birth of a Nation. It is a story worth telling not merely for its sentiment, but because it was all but lost in the historical record. After Charleston, South Carolina was evacuated in February 1865 near the end of the Civil War, most of the people remaining among the ruins of the city were thousands of blacks. During the final eight months of the war, Charleston had been bombarded by Union batteries and gunboats, and much of its magnificent architecture lay in ruin. Also during the final months of war the Confederates had converted the Planters’ Race Course (a horse track) into a prison in which some 257 Union soldiers had died and were thrown into a mass grave behind the grandstand.

In April, more than twenty black carpenters and laborers went to the gravesite, reinterred the bodies in proper graves, built a tall fence around the cemetery enclosure one hundred yards long, and built an archway over an entrance. On the archway they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” And with great organization, on May 1, 1865, the black folk of Charleston, in cooperation with white missionaries, teachers, and Union troops, conducted an extraordinary parade of approximately ten thousand people. It began with three thousand black school children (now enrolled in freedmen’s schools) marching around the Planters’ Race Course with armloads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” Then followed the black women of Charleston, and then the men. They were in turn followed by members of Union regiments and various white abolitionists such as James Redpath. The crowd gathered in the graveyard; five black preachers read from Scripture, and a black children’s choir sang “America,” “We Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-spangled Banner,” and several spirituals. Then the solemn occasion broke up into an afternoon of speeches, picnics, and drilling troops on the infield of the old planters’ horseracing track.

This was the first Memorial Day. Black Charlestonians had given birth to an American tradition. By their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade of roses and lilacs and marching feet on their former masters’ race course, they had created the Independence Day of the Second American Revolution.

To this day hardly anyone in Charleston, or elsewhere, even remembers this story. Quite remarkably, it all but vanished from memory. But in spite of all the other towns in America that claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day (all claiming spring, 1866), African Americans and Charleston deserve pride of place. Why not imagine a new rebirth of the American nation with this scene?






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3 responses to “MEMORIAL DAY: 5-26-2008

  1. SjP

    Ann – much obliged for your visit to Sojourner’s Place. Sometimes what we think to be simple coincidences are actually divine interventions. I say that because I spent most of my adult life living in one of the areas you list as the first to celebrate Memorial Day. Now isn’t that interesting?

    The history you provide here is so important and typically never told. You would think that African Americans contributed nothing to the history of this Country. And now for me to learn that African Americans were actually the first to honor our fallen soldiers is once again an illustration of the desire to completely erase us from the history that is America.

    I’m sorry for the link not working…but that was probably divine intervention, too.

    Don’t be a stranger… SjP

  2. Ann

    Hello, Sojourner.

    Yes, America has stomped down and tried to obliterate the many unsung gifts that black people have given this country, but, as Dr. King so aptly stated: “Truth crushed to the ground will rise up.” And so it does.

    Yes, funny, that link not working.

    Absolute Divine Intervention 🙂

    I felt, well, if you can’t go in one way, then try another.

    I shall strive to stop by your blog more often.



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