CHARLESTON S.C. – The city that plunged the nation into its bloodiest conflict also can lay a claim to holding the first Memorial Day observance honoring the dead from the Civil War.
In a little known event, as many as 10,000 people, many of them Black, gathered May 1, 1865, to hold a parade, hear speeches and dedicate the graves of Union dead in what is now Hampton Park in Charleston.
A number of towns around the nation claim holding the first Memorial Day, although the distinction generally goes to the town of Waterloo, in upstate New York.
“What happened in Charleston does have the right to claim to be first, if that matters,” said David Blight, a history professor at Yale who has extensively researched the Charleston event.
“It involved several thousand Freedmen. It had all sorts of official involvement by Union troops, and it had the involvement of Northern missionaries and teachers who had been teaching at Freedmen schools for months,” said Blight, also director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.
Hampton park was originally the Planters Race Course and, during the final months of the Civil War, a hellish open-air Confederate prison. A total of 267 Union troops died at the camp, some of whom had been moved from the infamous Andersonville prison in Georgia before it was liberated.
The dead were originally buried in a mass grave by the Confederates, but, after the war, members of Black churches buried them in individual graves at the site of the camp.
An arch over the graveyard entrance identified those buried there as “The Martyrs of the Race Course.” The Union dead were later moved to national cemeteries.
The Charleston commemoration was referred to at the time as Decoration Day, as were other early Memorial Day observances.
Blight, who became familiar with the event while doing research in the late 1990s, said that, although the Charleston commemoration was reported in the national media, it quickly passed from official memory in South Carolina.
The Northern troops went home and the memory remained generally with Blacks.
“As the Lost Cause tradition—the Southern, Confederate version of the meaning and memory of the war—set in, no one in White Charleston or the state was interested in remembering the war through this event,” Blight said.
He said memory of the event was suppressed when White Democrats took back control of the state in 1876 and Southern states held their own Confederate Memorial Days.
Blight gave a seminar on the Charleston event here nine years ago, and a marker has been placed at the park proclaiming it the site of the nation’s first Memorial Day.
In the North, in 1868, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic ordered the graves of the war dead be decorated with flowers and memorials.
Two years earlier, in 1866, Waterloo held its first Memorial Day. The entire community has celebrated the day every year since, and, 100 years after that first observance, then-President Lyndon Johnson signed a proclamation designating the town as the birthplace of Memorial Day, said Nancy Newland, the executive director of the Waterloo Library and Historical Society.
“At the end of the day you have to ask does it really matter who is first. But if the issue is what is the first event, Charleston occurred a full year earlier,” Blight said.
Memorial Day through the years was generally celebrated May 30. Beginning in 1971, the federal holiday was designated as the last Monday in May.