But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.
Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.
The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.
After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied 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.”
Forgetting Why We Remember
By David W. Blight
May 29, 2011
African-Americans invented Memorial Day, in Charleston, South Carolina. There are three or four cities in the United States, North and South, that claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day, but they all claim 1866; they were too late. I had the great, blind, good fortune to discover this story in a messy, totally disorganized collection of veterans’ papers at the Houghton Library at Harvard some years back. And what you have there is black Americans, recently freed from slavery, announcing to the world, with their flowers and their feet and their songs, what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a second American Revolution. That story got lost, it got lost for more than a century. And when I discovered it, I started calling people in Charleston that I knew in archives and libraries, including the Avery Institute, the black research center in Charleston — “Has anybody, have you ever heard of this story?” And no one had ever heard it. It showed the power of the Lost Cause in the wake of the war to erase a story. But I started looking for other sources, and lo and behold there were lots of sources. Harper’s Weekly even had a drawing of the cemetery in an 1867 issue. The old oval of that racetrack is still there today. If you ever go to Charleston go up to Hampton Park. Hampton Park is today what the racecourse was then. It’s named for Wade Hampton, the white supremacist, redeemer, and governor of South Carolina at the end of Reconstruction and a Confederate General during the Civil War. And that park sits immediately adjacent to the Citadel, the Military Academy of Charleston. On any given day you can see at any given time about 100 or 200 Citadel cadets jogging on the track of the old racecourse. There is no marker, there’s no memento, there’s only a little bit of a memory. Although a few years ago a friend of mine in Charleston organized a mock ceremony where we re-enacted that event, including the children’s choir, and they made me dress up in a top hat and a funny old nineteenth century suit and made me get up on a podium and make a stupid speech. But there is an effort, at least today, to declare Hampton Park a National Historic Landmark. See you Thursday.
The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
HIST 119 – Lecture 19 – To Appomattox and Beyond: The End of the War and a Search for Meanings