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First Memorial Day

First Memorial Day

by William H. Benson

May 29, 2020

On Feb. 15, 1865, General Beauregard of the Confederate States Army ordered the evacuation of all Confederate forces from Charleston, South Carolina. He knew that his army could not stop General William T. Sherman’s Union troops from capturing Charleston on their march north.

Union forces detested South Carolina. It was the first state to secede from the Union, in Dec. of 1860, and it was there, at Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor, that the Civil War had begun in April of 1861, when rebel forces fired upon Federal troops.

Four years later, on Feb. 18, 1865, Charleston’s mayor surrendered his heavily-bombarded city to Union army officials, who had laid a siege upon the city since July of 1863.

The city’s former slaves were overcome with joy that they were now set free from slavery, because Union troops had arrived and their white Confederate masters had fled.

Once in the city, Union army officials learned the tragic news that Confederate army officers had converted the city’s finest county club, an oval-shaped horse race track and its massive grandstand, into a prison for their captive Union soldiers.

Not knowing what to do with Union POW’s during the war’s final months, since prisoner exchanges between the two armies had slowed, Confederate army officials had transformed the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into “a makeshift prison for Union captives,” and a place to die.

It was there, inside the track, that at least 257 captured “Union soldiers died from disease and exposure while being held in the race track’s open-air infield.”

The Confederates then buried the deceased bodies in a mass grave behind the grandstands.

The Civil War ended two months later on April 9, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

The story of what happened next at that race track was lost to history, until 1996, when a Civil War historian, David Blight, a current professor at Yale University, happened to rummage through two boxes of letters and documents at Harvard’s Houghton Library, and discovered the following story.

In 1865, the freed blacks first decided “to give the fallen Union prisoners a proper burial. They exhumed the mass grave and reinterred the bodies in a new cemetery with a tall whitewashed fence,” although they could not attach even a single name to one body.

They then built an archway over the new cemetery’s entrance and inscribed upon it the words: ‘Martyrs of the Race Course.’”

Then, on Monday, May 1, 1865, the freed black people gathered at the race track, “with some white missionaries,” and together they staged a parade of 10,000 people, who walked around the race track.

Some 3,000 black school-aged children led the parade. As they walked, they sang the Union army’s marching song, “John Brown’s Body,” and carried armloads of roses.

Next, hundreds of black women walked, each carrying “baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses.”

Then, after the women, certain regiments marched, including the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, and the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment, which performed double-time marches.

Once all arrived at the new cemetery enclosure, a dedication ceremony unfolded. First, a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and a number of spirituals, and then, a series of black ministers read passages from the Bible.

After the dedication service, the people congregated inside the track, where they “enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches, and watched soldiers drill.” They “did what many of us do on Memorial Day.”

David Blight goes so far as to say that, “Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration.”

The freed slaves celebrated this first Memorial day on May 1, 1865, three years before the first national commemoration of Memorial Day, held in Arlington National Cemetery, on May 30, 1868.

Yet, the history evaporated. David Blight called the Avery Institute of Afro-American History at a college in Charleston and was told, “I’ve never heard of it. This never happened.” Yet, it had.

Blight explained that once the war was over and white residents returned to Charleston, they took back control of their city. They “had little interest in remembering an event held by former slaves to celebrate Union dead. That didn’t fit their version of what the war was all about.” They killed the story.

No horses race on the track today, “but an oval roadway survives on the site in Hampton Park. The old gravesite of the ‘Martyrs of the Race Course’ is gone too.” In the 1880’s, Federal officials dug up the bodies and laid each to a final rest at a national cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina.