History has always been one of my favourite subjects to study. But as great a student as I was, there are just some things I don’t recall ever learning. The history of Memorial Day is one of them. To be fair, this lesson could have been lost in my memories of my chaotic “normal” Junior Year History class where the students had to learn instead of the AP History class with the Mr. Trainer I punked out of taking where students actually wanted to learn, but I doubt it.
Let’s admit the obvious: textbooks are generally biased. History is written by the victors and the “victors” don’t always tell the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help them God. Certain agendas are pushed, Certain events glossed over, and other events are forgotten altogether. Memorial Day is such a one. The presumed reason? Because African-Americans created it.
The First Memorial Day
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Charleston, SC was a mess. An area previously under siege and largely abandoned by its white inhabitants, Charleston yet housed thousands of former slaves who decided to not just clean up their hometown, but to also honour those who fell to make them free.
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 twenty-eight 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.”
Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.” (David W. Blight, Yale historian)
The parade took place on May 1st, 1865. Naval chaplain, Padre Steve, adds,
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 practice of decorating graves — which gave rise to an alternative name, Decoration Day — didn’t start with the 1868 events, nor was it an exclusively Northern practice. In 1866 the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Columbus, Ga., chose April 26, the anniversary of Gen. Joseph Johnston’s final surrender to Gen. William T. Sherman, to commemorate fallen Confederate soldiers. Later, both May 10, the anniversary of Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s death, and June 3, the birthday of Jefferson Davis, were designated Confederate Memorial Day in different states.
Memorial Days were initially occasions of sacred bereavement, and from the war’s end to the early 20th century they helped forge national reconciliation around soldierly sacrifice, regardless of cause.
The Ongoing Tradition
Blight goes on to say,
Officially, as a national holiday, Memorial Day emerged in 1868 when General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans organization, called on all former northern soldiers and their communities to conduct ceremonies and decorate graves of their dead comrades. On May 30, 1868, when flowers were plentiful, funeral ceremonies were attended by thousands of people in 183 cemeteries in twenty-seven states. The following year, some 336 cities and towns in thirty-one states, including the South, arranged parades and orations. The observance grew manifold with time….
Over time several American towns, north and south, claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. But all of them commemorate cemetery decoration events from 1866. Pride of place as the first large scale ritual of Decoration Day, therefore, goes to African Americans in Charleston. By their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade of flowers and marching feet on their former owners’ race course, they created for themselves, and for us, the Independence Day of the Second American Revolution.
As with most wonderful ideas and inventions, numerous parties try to claim dibs on the right of the creator. But thankfully, Professor Blight has shown us who the true Memorial Day founders are. Let’s not forget to honour their memory as well as that of our glorious dead.
- “The First Decoration Day” (David W. Blight)
- “Forgetting Why We Remember” (New York Times, David W. Blight)
- Race and Reunion: The Civil War in an American Memory (David W. Blight)
- “The Memorial Day History Forgot: The Martyrs of the Race Course” (Denise Oliver Velez)
- “Who Invented Memorial Day” (HuffPost Politics, Jim Downs)