Memorial Day. Its origins as Decoration Day in Charleston, SC

History …does not refer merely to the past…history is literally present in all we do.
James Baldwin, “Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes, ” 1965

Washington Racecourse Graves“The Civil War is our felt history — history lived in the national imagination,” wrote Robert Penn Warren in his Legacy of the Civil War (1961). He continues, “when one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.” This is how the book Race and Reunion, begins (Harvard University Press, 2001) by Yale University History Professor, David Blight.

This holiday I am reminded a Race Track, one in Charleston, South Carolina – one that hosted wealthy planters’ horse races in as early as 1790. It was called the Charleston Race Course, the Planters’ Racecourse and Washington Racecourse, and it later became known as Hampton Park. But the story then took an illuminating turn. It was about what was became known as Decoration Day, May Day, the first day of May, 1865, in Charleston. Professor Blight argues that this was the very first Memorial Day in the United States. His book asks questions about why we remember history the way we do.

RosesAccording to Professor David Blight, the first memorial day was observed on May 1, 1865 by over 9,000 liberated slaves, abolitionists and school children, who paraded with armloads of fresh roses and lilies, and who decorated the graves of the newly reinterred Union dead, at the Washington Race Course (today the location of Hampton Park) in Charleston, South Carolina. This certainly was one of the first public events which set into motion the rituals that we today have come to know as Memorial Day.

The site had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp. Conditions were less than optimal and 257 Union soldiers died there and were buried in a mass grave. The African American Freedmen, along with black church leaders in Charleston, organized and dug up the bodies of the dead Union soldiers from the mass grave and reburied each body in an individual grave with a cross; they built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch, declaring these “The Martyrs of the Race Course”. In conjunction with James Redpath and the missionaries and teachers among the freedmen relief associations at work in Charleston, blacks planned a May Day ceremony that a New York Tribune correspondent called ” a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.” 10,000 people, including the all black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, paraded from the area, followed by much preachin’, singin’ and picnicin’.

But over the years, in the South, “many of the states of the U.S. South refused to celebrate ‘Decoration Day’, due to lingering hostility towards the Union Army and also because there were relatively few veterans of the Union Army who were buried in the South.” It was too closely linked to the Union cause.

Hopefully, we are far enough from this history to heal the long and troubled memory of the Civil War. I vote for more singing and picnicking together.

I was called to be an artist. And as an old old midwife said to me "If the Lord wants you to do something, you won't have no good luck' til you do." So, here I am, sharing what I love, longing to illuminate the work of art, which is everywhere.

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Posted in Arts & Culture, Charleston South Carolina, Gullah, South Carolina History
6 comments on “Memorial Day. Its origins as Decoration Day in Charleston, SC
  1. So we should be dropping roses and lilies on graves today? Was it only for union soldiers, or did it just get painted that way?

  2. Lilies and roses and rememberin’ ancestors are things I am always believin’ in! Today, Memorial Day, has been now ‘nationalized’ and broadened so that all the dead of war are remembered and certainly that is a good thing. But the origins of the day should also be remembered I think, for what it was. Originally a Southern celebration, full of, I am sure, good music, good people, good preachin’.

  3. Pinkney says:

    There was a hardware store in Columbia when I was growing up that had front license plates for sale. One showed a Union soldier with a a chest full of medals and the flag over his shoulder. He said, “Foget it!” The other plate showed a Confederate soldier wearing no medals, but with the battle flag over his shoulder and a sabre in his hand saying, “Forget, Hell!” Hard to believe, but at that time I didn’t know what they were about. I sometimes think that the saying, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” has a corolary, “Those who won’t get over the past are doomed to live there.”

  4. Yes, I think you are right. It is a wonder, isn’t it, how many generations have continued to carry this burden in the South, isn’t it? I am thankful for the sixties, an era when so many of our generation questioned traditional ways of doing things. That was a great gift for me, I know. Now I truly love so much of my own history. Having had time away, I trust I see it all now with fresher eyes. Thanks for the story, Pinkney!

  5. Dee Nelson says:

    Hi Charlotte. Doing a little genealogy on these January days about Ashley River and my Aaron Way family from Mass. Bay Colony.
    Lo, there’s Henry Woodward connected to story about Andrew Percival on Shaftesbury’s St. Giles Plantation near head of Ashley River (also called Ashley Barony?) The guy got around!
    Dee Nelson

    • How about that? Yes, Henry Woodward was connected to Andrew Percival who I believe was a locally appointed official, no? Love that you took time to write. I too read history all day! A January thing! Happy New Year, Dee!

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What’s this?

Welcome to my blog about the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a place proud with beauty, history and art. Sometimes we feel a call, to be, to go, to do. I was called to be an artist, and as an old midwife from Alabama said, “If the good Lord wants you to do something, you won’t have no good luck until you do it.”

So here I am writing about what I know, about the 'under glimmer' as the poet Basho, says, the way I have learned to see, to notice. I am inspired by, and talking about the history and art and culture of this place that has called me to herself. By the ancestors.

My background includes a degree in fine arts from a small private college in Florida, and before that, four years of all girls' boarding school in Asheville. I worked as a professional photographer, helped my children grow up, and now and I love seasoned things, good food, better conversation, beauty, my beloved and beautiful Italian Greyhound, Beau. Moved by the sacred places and stories of this beautiful historic land called the Lowcountry, I am here in spirit and I hope to infect you with my love of this place.

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