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article imageFreed slaves observed the country's first Memorial Day

By Karen Graham     May 22, 2015 in World
Charleston - Memorial Day, once called Decoration Day, is a federal holiday observed on the last Monday in May. On this day we remember and honor the men and women who gave their lives while serving in the nation's armed services.
The holiday, first called Decoration Day, started after the Civil War in America, and was observed to honor the memory of the Union and Confederate soldiers who had died during the conflict. It wasn't until the 20th century that Memorial Day observances were extended to honor all service members serving in all wars.
History books have always said the first observances of Decoration Day started during and after the Civil War. And a number of cities lay claim to having the first observance, from Warrenton, Virginia, on June 3, 1861, when a wreath was laid at a Civil War soldier's grave, to a well documented story of the ladies of Savannah, Georgia putting flowers on Confederate grave in 1862.
John A. Logan and family (l-r: wife Mary Simmerson Cunningham Logan  son Manning Alexander Logan  Lo...
John A. Logan and family (l-r: wife Mary Simmerson Cunningham Logan, son Manning Alexander Logan, Logan, daughter Mary Elizabeth Logan AKA "Dollie"), circa 1870.
Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)
Interestingly, almost all our history texts credit the founding of Memorial Day to one man, a white former Union Army Major General, John A. Logan, who in 1868 called for a Decoration Day to be observed annually and nationwide.
The Decoration Day history forgot - "The Martyrs of the Racecourse"
The wars we have today seem very far away, always in someone else's country. We are not aware of the scale of death and destruction that war brings in its wake. For us, war is a video on the television screen. But in Charleston, South Carolina in April of 1865, the ruins of the long conflict were evident everywhere.
The port city of Charleston is where the Civil War started in April, 1861, but by the spring of 1865, the city was nearly deserted of its white population. The first Union troops to enter the city and march up Meeting Street were the Twenty-First U. S. Colored Infantry, and it was their commander who accepted the formal surrender of Charleston that day.
Meeting street and Queen  at the end of the Civil War. This is the very street in Charleston  the Tw...
Meeting street and Queen, at the end of the Civil War. This is the very street in Charleston, the Twenty First U.S. Colored Infantry came marching down in the spring of 1865.
George N. Barnard (1819 - 1902)
While the city may have been deserted by most of the white folks, there were over 10,000 freed slaves who gathered to greet the Union Army. The story goes that these freedmen and women dug up a mass grave containing the bodies of 257 dead Union soldiers, only to rebury them on May 1, 1865 in a cleaned up and landscaped burial ground.
They built an archway with a placard that said "Martyrs of the Race-Course," and buried the bodies with a ritualized remembrance celebration, attended by thousands of people, white and black. The ceremony was covered by the New York Tribune and other national newspapers of that day.
Who were these freed slaves of Charleston, S.C.?
Who were these freed slaves? Why would they take the trouble to honor a bunch of white soldiers? Let's go back to the early colonial period in Charleston, when fully one-quarter of the all the slaves brought into this country came through the city. As the official end to the slave trade was coming on, more than 90,000 slaves were brought into Charleston between 1801 and the official end of the American slave trade in 1808.
For those people who have visited Charleston and Myrtle Beach, you will know something of the Low Country, its cuisine and the dialect spoken by many of the residents. In colonial times, the area of South Carolina along the coast, including the Sea Islands was known for its rice and indigo production, as well as its Sea Island cotton.
The Low Country was all the land from the fall line to the sea shore, a region of marshes, with cypress trees draped in moss, stagnant water full of mosquitoes and other diseases. Today, visitors can look in on restored plantations with wooden walkways that take in the swamps and you might even see a few alligators.
African slaves unloading rice barges at a South Carolinian rice plantation. (J. G. Holland Scribner ...
African slaves unloading rice barges at a South Carolinian rice plantation. (J. G. Holland Scribner's Monthly, An Illustrated Magazine for the People (New York, NY: Scribner & Co., 1874)
Clipart courtesy FCIT
But in colonial times and on up to the start of the Civil War, Low Country crops were tended by African slaves, and not just any African slave would do. They were the Gullah people from the rice-growing regions of West Africa and the Congo-Angola region of Central Africa. Plantation owners prized these slaves because of their knowledge in rice-growing, a very lucrative crop that made millions of dollars for the white owners.
The Gullah people remained at the plantations during the hot and humid summer rice-growing months when white owners took their families inland to cooler areas to avoid malaria, yellow fever, and cholera, so rampant at that time of year. A few white overseers and a few trusted black men were left in charge. Because of the isolation of the huge plantations, the Gullah developed their own language, a unique blend of African and English, as well as a religion that also blended African ritual with Christian beliefs.
Screen shot of cemetery at race track constructed by freed slaves of Charleston. Circa 1865.

Dan We...
Screen shot of cemetery at race track constructed by freed slaves of Charleston. Circa 1865. Dan Welch, Education Programs Coordinator for the Gettysburg Foundation, delivers his winter lecture, "Martyrs of the Race Course - The Forgotten Decoration Day."
Gettysburg NPS
But that was not all the Gullah people gave to this fledgling country. Besides a unique cultural tradition, they also created their own Low Country cuisine that visitors discover and come to love today. But more importantly, their culture, rituals and traditions, especially the way they honored their ancestors and those who had died in battle were passed on to the next generations.
The first Decoration Day arrives
It was the Gullah people that showed the most resistance to being enslaved, and who most enthusiastically embraced freedom when it was given to them. David W. Blight is a professor of American history at Yale University. He described the race track where the burial and honoring of the Union soldiers took place in 1865.
He tells the story like this; during the final year of the Civil War, the Confederates had converted the planters’ horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Like Andersonville, the conditions at the prison were horrific, and about 257 Union prisoners died of disease and exposure. The bodies were thrown in a mass grave behind the grandstand.
The grandstand  for the Washington Race Track were designed by Charles F. Reichardt in the 1830s. Un...
The grandstand for the Washington Race Track were designed by Charles F. Reichardt in the 1830s. Union soldiers who died in the prison camp were thrown into a mass grave behind the grandstand.
Library of Congress
At the end of the war, some 28 black workmen went to the site of the mass grave, dug up the bodies, reburying the dead properly. A high whitewashed fence was built around the cemetery, and the archway was constructed over the entrance with the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Here is what Professor Blight says happened on May 1, 1865: Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”
For over 50 some odd years, white Charlestonians tried to suppress the memory of that first Decoration Day, but the memory has been rediscovered and has a certain amount of profound meaning, if not the fact that it has been brought back into its historical context. The race track is still there, although in the 1880s the Union soldier's bodies were moved to Beaufort National Cemetery, and remain there today.
A few years ago, the city of Charleston and the state government authorized plans for a historical marker in Hampton Park to honor the first Dedication Day. Harlan Greene, director of archival and reference services at Avery, said the time is right; "Charleston has begun to recognize its African-American history."
"We're approaching a tipping point," Greene said. "The irony of the story is that Charleston is the cradle of the Confederacy, but the memorial was for Union soldiers. It shows the richness of Charleston history."
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