05/25/2009 (7:49 am)
The Washington Race Course in Charleston, South Carolina was one of several sites converted to prison camps for Union soldiers when the Confederacy evacuated the Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia to prevent General Sherman from freeing the prisoners during his March Through Georgia in 1864. The soldiers, who arrived there already starved and diseased, were herded into the track’s infield and kept there in the open, without shelter. They soon began to die. Two hundred fifty seven were buried in shallow, unmarked graves behind the judge’s stand.
Freed blacks from the city of Charleston saw the irony of the race course, a symbol of the planter aristocracy, being used to house ill-treated prisoners of the war to free them, and decided that the soldiers who died there needed proper burial as a means to honor their sacrifice. In April of 1865, just days after the Confederacy’s surrender at the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse, a few dozen volunteers calling themselves “Friends of the Martyrs” and “the Patriotic Association of Colored Men” spent 10 days exhuming the bodies and burying them properly in individual graves with caskets and headstones, although there was no way to identify most of them.
On Monday morning, May 1, 1865, 10,000 freed black residents of Charleston attended the funeral for these, their liberators. Almost 3 thousand black children filed past them singing “John Brown’s Body”. They were joined by several “colored regiments” of the Union Army: the 104th and the 35th, and the famous Massachusetts 54th, the first colored regiment. They prayed, listened to sermons, dedicated the place as a Union cemetery, and held picnics. They called it Decoration Day. And in the next few years, they returned to decorate the graves at the race track with flowers.
Celebrations to honor the Union dead spread for several decades, and then were recognized as a national holiday. There were separate days to honor the Confederate dead created by southern states, who did not want to celebrate the honoring of the Union dead; these continued until the mid-20th century, and then were merged into the national Memorial Day.
Memorial Day has been expanded to commemorate all those who have died defending the United States of America in any fashion. The first Memorial Day, however, was a spontaneous expression of genuine gratitude by freed blacks for those who had died to free them.
3 Comments »
Comment by John Cooper
I had never heard that story. Someone should update Wikipedia to include it.
Comment by Dale Jackson
Real history is so much better then the made up stuff.
Comment by Chasseur
at 45:45 minutes.
The lecture series is excellent, and this this particular lecture is recommended.