Charleston’s Role in Memorial Day

Posted By Bill Payer on May 17, 2022 | 0 comments

“Nowadays, Memorial Day honors veterans of all wars, but its roots are in America’s deadliest conflict, the Civil War. Approximately 620,000 soldiers died, about two-thirds from disease.

The work of honoring the dead began right away all over the country, and several American towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. Researchers have traced the earliest annual commemoration to women who laid flowers on soldiers’ graves in the Civil War hospital town of Columbus, Miss., in April 1866. But historians like the Pulitzer Prize winner David Blight have tried to raise awareness of freed slaves who decorated soldiers’ graves a year earlier, to make sure their story gets told too.

According to Blight’s 2001 book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, a commemoration organized by freed slaves and some white missionaries took place on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, S.C., at a former planters’ racetrack where Confederates held captured Union soldiers during the last year of the war. At least 257 prisoners died, many of disease, and were buried in unmarked graves, so black residents of Charleston decided to give them a proper burial. Clubhouse at the race course where Union soldiers were held prisoner. Civil war photographs, 1861-1865, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In the approximately 10 days leading up to the event, roughly two dozen African American Charlestonians reorganized the graves into rows and built a 10-foot-tall white fence around them. An archway overhead spelled out “Martyrs of the Race Course” in black letters.” To read the rest of the TIME Magazine article by Olivia B. Waxman CLICK HERE.

Here are some other sources:

WCSC-TV “Charleston claims first Memorial Day celebration with African Americans playing significant role”

The College of Charleston also cites the Hampton Park reburial.

And the website SNOPES.COM says Charleston’s origin claim is sort of right…but not exactly.

Decoration Day/Memorial Day didn’t become a federal holiday until 1971.

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