The acrid smell of smoke of the last battles of the American Civil War was still lingering over many towns and cities in the South on May 1st 1865. Charleston South Carolina, a hotbed of secession was particularly hard hit during the war. In 1861 Cadets of the Citadel and South Carolina militia forces began the war with the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Union Forces laid siege to the city in late 1863 which ended with the city’s surrender on 18 February 1865. By this time much of the city had been destroyed by Union siege artillery and naval forces.
Charleston had also been the home of three of the Prisoner of War Camps erected by the Confederacy, one in the Charleston City Jail and the other at Castle Pinckney. Another camp was erected on the site of the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in 1864. This was an open air camp and Yale Historian David Blight wrote that “Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.” (See http://www.davidwblight.com/memorial.htm)
By the end of the war most of the white population of the city had left and most of those remaining were recently freed slaves. After their liberation and the city’s occupation by Federal forces including the famous 54th Massachusetts as well as the 20th, 35th and 104th US Colored Troops Regiments. A number, about 28 Black men went to work and properly reinterred these 257 Union dead on the raceway building a high fence around it. They inscribed “Martyrs of the Race Course” on an arch above the cemetery entrance.
On May 1st over 10,000 Black Charlestonians gathered at the site to honor the fallen. Psalms, Scriptures and prayers were said, hymns were sung and many brought flowers. A parade of 2800 children covered the burial ground with flowers. They were followed by members of the Patriotic Association of Colored Men and the Mutual Aid Society whose members provided relief supplies to Freedmen and provided aid to bury those Blacks who were too poor to afford burial. More citizens followed many laying flower bouquets on the graves. Children then led the singing of The Star Spangled Banner, America and Rally Around the Flag. The Brigade composed of the 54th Massachusetts and the 35th and 104th Colored Regiments marched in honor of their fallen comrades. Following the formalities many remained behind for a picnic. A contemporary account can be found here: http://media.charleston.net/2009/pdf/firstmemorial_day_052409.pdf
Other communities would establish their own Memorial Day observances in the years following the war, with the Charleston event preceding the next earliest event by a full year. The first “Official” commemoration was on 30 May 1868 when Union General John Logan and head of the veteran’s organization called The Grand Army of the Republic appealed to communities to honor the dead by holding ceremonies and decorating the graves of the fallen. In the South three different days served a similar purpose. In Virginia people commemorated the day on June 3rd, the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the Carolinas marked the day on 10 May, the birthday of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, while in the Deep South the event was conducted on the anniversary of the surrender of General Joseph Johnson’s Army to General William Tecumseh Sherman. For many in the South the day would become about “The Lost Cause” or “the defense of Liberty” or “States Rights” and was often caused the “War of Northern Aggression.”
The “Martyrs of the Racecourse” cemetery is no longer there. The site is now a park honoring Confederate General and the White Supremacist “Redeemer Governor” of South Carolina Wade Hampton. An oval track remains in the park and is used by the local population and cadets from the Citadel to run on. The Union dead who had been so beautifully honored by the Black population were moved to the National Cemetery at Beaufort South Carolina in the 1880s and the event conveniently erased from memory. Had not historian David Blight found the documentation we probably still would not know of this touching act which so honored those that fought the battles that won their freedom.
The African American population of Charleston who understood the bonds of slavery and oppression, the tyranny of prejudice in which they only counted as 3/5ths of a person and saw the suffering of those that were taken prisoner while attempting to liberate them stand as an example for us today. Within little more than a decade they would be subject to Jim Crow and again treated by many whites as something less than human. The struggle of them and their descendants against the tyranny of racial prejudice, discrimination and violence over the next 100 years would finally bear fruit in the Civil Rights movement whose leaders, like the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. would also become martyrs.
Frederick Douglass spoke to Union Veterans on Memorial Day 1878. His words, particularly in light of the war and the struggles of African Americans since and the understanding of what those who were enslaved understood liberation to be are most significant to our time. It was not merely a war based on sectionalism or even “States rights,” it was a war of ideas. He said:
“But the sectional character of this war was merely accidental and its least significant feature. It was a war of ideas, a battle of principles and ideas which united one section and divided the other; a war between the old and new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization; between a government based upon the broadest and grandest declaration of human rights the world ever heard or read, and another pretended government, based upon an open, bold and shocking denial of all rights, except the right of the strongest.”
I do hope in the days ahead as we prepare to celebrate Memorial Day, as we prepare to honor those Americans who died that others might be free to look back at what freedom actually means and not forget the sacrifices of those that give their lives that others might live.