Memorial Day, which is an annual holiday in the U.S. held on the last Monday of May, honors all those who died serving in the U.S. military. It also marks the unofficial start of summer and comes with a three-day holiday weekend where people spend extra time with family and friends by sharing a meal or planning backyard barbecues or picnics.
The day also comes with military ceremonies and gravesite visits and what is widely known is that the first national Memorial Day observance happened in D.C.’s backyard, at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. How formerly enslaved Black Americans started the real first Memorial Day in 1865 is known by only a few as the event was for many years suppressed history.
Just about a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, newly emancipated Black people there exhumed a mass grave for Union soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.
During the Civil War, the Confederate army held Union soldiers as captives in Charleston’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, a country club that the Confederate army transformed into a makeshift prison. According to History.com, over 260 Union soldiers died due to poor conditions at the prison which led to diseases. Those who died were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstands.
When the Union army seized Charleston, emancipated men and women honored the fallen soldiers by giving them a proper burial. They exhumed the mass grave of the Union soldiers in April 1865 and reinterred the bodies in a new cemetery they built with a tall white-washed fence. They wrote on the fence the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.” It took them two weeks to reinter the body of each soldier.
On May 1, 1865, about a month after the Civil War formally ended, Charleston held what is now believed to be the first Memorial Day commemoration on record. According to History.com, “a crowd of 10,000 people, mostly freed slaves with some white missionaries, staged a parade around the race track. Three thousand Black schoolchildren carried bouquets of flowers and sang ‘John Brown’s Body.’ Members of the famed 54th Massachusetts and other Black Union regiments were in attendance and performed double-time marches. Black ministers recited verses from the Bible.”
Interestingly, Charleston is where the event marking the beginning of the Civil War began. It is now recognized as where some Charlestonians first celebrated the Union troops via the 1865 event.
“It’s the fact that this occurred in Charleston at a cemetery site for the Union dead in a city where the Civil war had begun and that it was organized and done by African American former slaves is what gives it such poignancy,” Yale History and African American studies professor Dr. David W. Blight said of the 1865 event.
Blight discovered the untold story of the first Memorial Day while going through archival materials from Union soldiers in a Harvard University library in 1996.
“This was a story that had really been suppressed both in the local memory and certainly the national memory,” said Blight. “But nobody who had witnessed it could ever have forgotten it.”
“Our history is full of wonderful moments, it’s also full of dark moments,” Dr. Adam Domby, a Civil War historian told WJLA. “Southern history is not just the history of the Confederacy. It’s also the history of before and after.”
After the war, the old horse track and country club were torn down. A rich Northern patron helped move the graves of the Union soldiers from the white-fenced graveyard in Charleston to the Beaufort National Cemetery.