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Posted on May 28, 2013
As the U.S. Civil War came to a close in April 1865, Union troops entered the city of Charleston, S.C., where four years prior the war had begun. While white residents had largely fled the city, Black residents of Charleston remained to celebrate and welcome the troops, who included the Twenty-First Colored Infantry. Their celebration on May 1, 1865, the first “Decoration Day,” later became Memorial Day.
Historian David Blight retold the story:
During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters’ horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. 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. Some 28 black workmen went to the site, re-buried 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.” via LA Progressive
The Library of CongressThis April 1865 photo shows the graves of Union soldiers who died at the Race Course prison camp in Charleston, which would later become Hampton Park. On May 1 of that year, former slaves gave the fallen a daylong funeral.
Charleston was in ruins.
The peninsula was nearly deserted, the fine houses empty, the streets littered with the debris of fighting and the ash of fires that had burned out weeks before. The Southern gentility was long gone, their cause lost.
In the weeks after the Civil War ended, it was, some said, "a city of the dead."
On a Monday morning that spring, nearly 10,000 former slaves marched onto the grounds of the old Washington Race Course, where wealthy Charleston planters and socialites had gathered in old times. During the final year of the war, the track had been turned into a prison camp. Hundreds of Union soldiers died there.
For two weeks in April, former slaves had worked to bury the soldiers. Now they would give them a proper funeral.
The procession began at 9 a.m. as 2,800 black school children marched by their graves, softly singing "John Brown's Body."
Soon, their voices would give way to the sermons of preachers, then prayer and — later — picnics. It was May 1, 1865, but they called it Decoration Day.
On that day, former Charleston slaves started a tradition that would come to be known as Memorial Day.
The cemetery had been built on the grounds of the Race Course by two dozen men, groups that identified themselves as the "Friends of the Martyrs" and the "Patriotic Association of Colored Men."
On the track's infield, they built a 10-foot fence and dug 257 graves. Most of the soldiers who died at the Race Course prison had been malnourished or exposed to the elements too long to survive. They had been buried together in shallow graves, without coffins, behind the judge's stand.
The efforts to bury them were coordinated by freed slaves and missionaries and teachers working with the freedmen's relief associations, primarily a Scot James Redpath. They did all the work in 10 days, and called these dead soldiers "The Martyrs of the Race Course."
The exercise on May 1, the Charleston Daily Courier reported, began with the reading of a Psalm. The crowd sang a hymn, then prayed. Everyone in the procession carried a bouquet of flowers.
The children strew flowers on the graves as they walked past. After "John Brown's Body," they sang "The Star Spangled Banner," "America" and "Rally Round the Flag." By the end, the graves looked like a massive mound of rose petals.
These former slaves were joined by several Union regiments, including the 104th and 35th "colored regiments," as well as the famous 54th Massachusetts. These companies marched around the graves in solemn salute.
After the picnic, the crowd drifted away at dusk. They had spent the entire day at the new cemetery.
CHARLESTON, South Carolina—The ceremonies of the dedication of the ground where are buried two hundred and fifty-seven Union soldiers, took place in the presence of an immense gathering yesterday. Fully ten thousand persons were present, mostly of the colored population.
The ground had been previously laid out, the mounds of the graves newly raised, and a fine substantial fence erected around the enclosure by twenty-four colored men, “Friends of the Martyrs,” and members of the “Patriotic Association of Colored Men.” The exercises on the ground commenced with reading a Psalm, singing a hymn, followed by a prayer. The procession was formed shortly after nine o’clock, and made a beautiful appearance, nearly every one present bearing a handsome boquet of flowers. The colored children, about twenty-eight hundred in number, marched first over the burial ground, strewing the graves with their flowers as the passed.
After the children came the “Patriotic Association of Colored Men,” an association formed for the purpose of assisting in the distribution of the Freedmen’s supplies. These numbered about one hundred members. “The Mutual Aid Society,” an association formed for the purpose of burying poor colored people, about two hundred strong followed next. These were followed by the citizens generally, nearly all with boquets, which were also laid upon the graves. While standing around the graves the school children sung, “The Star Spangled Banner,” “America” and “Rally Rund the Flag,” and while marching, “John Brown’s Body, &c.” The graves at the close of the procession had all the appearance of a mass of roses. Among those present at the speaker’s stand inside the enclosure, were General Hartwell, Colonel Gurney, Colonel Beecher, Rev. Mr. Lowe, Mr. James Redpath and others.See more here >>>