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The History and Meaning of Memorial Day, part 2

Todd DePastino

Hand-tinted illustration from the 1870s (LOC)

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day when grieving women—mothers, widows, sisters—decorated the graves of fallen servicemen in churchyards North and South. No one told them to do it. There was no tradition of plucking spring blossoms, cradling the bounty, and carefully placing the flowers around fresh grave markers. The women invented the ritual on their own, spontaneously, as a first step toward healing the unspeakable trauma of war.

In the first part of our history of Memorial Day, we looked at one such group of women, The Ladies of Columbus, Mississippi, who came out to decorate both Blue and Gray headstones Friendship Cemetery in 1866. In this segment, we look at an even earlier event discovered twenty-five years ago by historian David Blight that changed our understanding of the holiday’s history. Blight discovered a treasure trove of documents detailing a remarkable Decoration Day commemoration that took place in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865.

“Marching on!”–The Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Colored Regiment singing John Brown’s March in the streets of Charleston, February 21, 1865 (LOC)

General William Tecumseh Sherman had marched his Army of Georgia first to Savannah before sending a special detachment north to occupy Charleston, the birthplace of secession. The first unit to arrive in the city was the 21st Regiment of US Colored Troops followed by the famous all-Black 55th Massachusetts Infantry. Charleston had been reduced to rubble by fire and relentless bombardment from land and sea.

Detail of Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln (LOC)

The white residents of Charleston had evacuated, so the only people there were Black, largely slaves of wealthy Charlestonians. These now freed people lined the streets and cheered as the Union troops marched in. Days later, the all-Black city held a parade with two floats: one carried a vignette of a slave auction, the other carried a coffin labeled “Slavery,” with a sign that read “Fort Sumter Dug its Grave, April 12th, 1861.”

But the celebratory mood turned grim with the discovery of a mass grave at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club (now Hampton Park). Before the war, the Race Course was the playground of the rich. But in 1865, it became an overflow facility for the notorious Andersonville prison camp in Georgia.

Within weeks of their arrival, 257 Union POWs had died of starvation, exposure, and disease.

Their guards had flung them in a mass grave, no names, no markers.

The Black soldiers of the 21st and 55th regiments began the gruesome task of dis- interring and separating the remains. After a couple weeks, each of the 257 fallen Union soldiers had his own plot and white- washed cross. The troops built a fence around the cemetery to prevent animals from trampling the sacred ground.

Then, on May 1, 10,000 people—mostly African Americans, mostly former slaves— marched to the site of Washington Race Course. Over the park’s entrance was a sign: “Martyrs of the Course.” The procession surrounded the makeshift cemetery to sing hymns, read scripture, and lay wreaths and flowers at the graves of the Union martyrs.

Three-thousand children sang “John Brown’s Body.” Uniformed soldiers per- formed parade ground maneuvers. Women processed with arms full of roses and crosses to decorate and consecrate the burial ground.

This commemoration was an act of reverence, but also a defiance of sorts. Charleston had been the de facto capital of the Old South ruled by a powerful plan- tation aristocracy. On May 1, 1865, the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, had been passed, but not ratified. There was not yet a 14th Amendment (securing Black citizenship) nor a 15th Amendment (guaranteeing voting rights).

1865 view of the Union soldiers graves at Washington Racecourse (LOC)

The future of these free Black citizens of Charleston was perilously uncertain.

The one thing that was certain is that they were now, for the moment at least, free. Their Decoration Day at Washington Race Course was meant to define the Union soldiers as martyrs to the cause they saw as animating the entire Civil War: slavery. Just to make sure no one overlooked the point, the celebrants took that empty coffin labeled “SLAVERY” from the parade 17 days earlier and they buried it in the cemetery, along with the martyrs.

So, this May 31, as you take a moment to remember and honor those who died in service to our country, think of the rich history of Memorial Day, a day set aside to share collective grief but also to affirm what’s best about our nation, the ideals that guide us, and those charged with the burden of protecting them.

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