The Origin of Memorial Day

The Origin of Memorial Day

Extracted from: The Wars of Reconstruction by Douglas R. Egerton (2014), page 6.

To honor those solders who had sacrificed their lives so that their country might live, Charleston’s black community sought to transform what had been a Confederate prison into a proper cemetery. In the last year of the conflict, white Carolinian’s had used the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, which stood just outside of the city boundaries, as a camp for captured Union soldiers. Herded into pens without shelter or adequate food, and despite the efforts of local “negroes and Irish” to “befriend them,” the prisoners had perished by the scores, their coffin-less, naked bodies dumped into shallow graves marked only with numbers as “No. 1”; the last “257.” Shortly after the Fort Sumter ceremony, black churchmen volunteered to clear weeds from the grounds, erect a high fence, and cover the markers with whitewash. Above the old entrance to the club, they wrote in large letters MARTYRS OF THE RACE-COURSE. At nine A.M. on May 1, some ten thousand black Charlestonians visited the graveyard with bouquets of flowers. So many residents attended what in essence was the nation's first Memorial Day, a Manhattan journalist noted, that “there were very few colored adults left in the city.” Members of the Twenty-fifth and 104th Colored Troops marched around the graves in double columns, and black children sang the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Several officers addressed the crowd, and as the reporter caustically observed, were “from the recently enslaved and ostracized race …”