The First Memorial Day
Memorial Day remembers and honors those Americans who have died in military service to their country.
Memorial Day has taken on the solemn task and special significance of paying tribute especially to those victims of foreign wars.
But the modern observance of Memorial Day has domestic roots. It arose out of the Civil War, when grieving American citizens mourned the thousands of lives lost in the Union and Confederate armies and celebrated the end of that national tragedy.
David Blight, professor of history at Yale University, details the story of an early Memorial Day observation, in Charleston, in his 2001 prizewinning book, "Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory," and also on his blog, Common-Place. According to Blight, it was the first Memorial Day celebration.
This year being the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, we'll quote him on this particular bit of Memorial Day history:
"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 20 black carpenters and laborers went to the grave site, reinterred the bodies in proper graves, built a tall fence around the cemetery enclosure 100 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 10,000 people.
"It began with 3,000 black school children 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.
"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."