The Hidden Roots of Memorial Day

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Wood engraving of orphans decorating their fathers' graves in Glenwood Cemetery, Philadelphia, on Decoration Day (Library of Congress)

Memorial Day was born out of the collective trauma of the Civil War.

By 1868, the head of a major veterans association, declared that the 30th of May would be dedicated to “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades” who had died fighting for the Union.  Nearly 5,000 people attended an official ceremony that year at the newly established Arlington National Cemetery.

The practice spread, and many northern states designated Memorial Day (or Decoration Day, as it was originally called) an official holiday.  Civic groups in the South also gathered to honor the Confederate dead, often on the birthday of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis (June 3) or the day marking the death of legendary commander Stonewall Jackson (May 10).

But Yale historian David Blight has evidence that suggests a notably different Memorial Day story.

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Contrary to popular belief, he argues, the holiday actually stemmed from a ceremony performed in 1865, by recently freed blacks in the smoldering city of Charleston, S.C. In researching his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American History, Professor Blight unearthed documents that, he claims, tells the story of the all-but-forgotten event.

Some 620,000 soldiers (Union and Confederate) are commonly believed to have been killed during the Civil War (although a recent analysis suggests the complete death toll was closer to 750,000)

Far more Americans died in the Civil War than in any other. The war claimed roughly six times more lives than World War II, America's second deadliest conflict.

In the war's aftermath, shell-shocked communities throughout the country didn't know what to do with so many bodies, writes historian Drew Gilpin Faust, author of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. When the fighting began, there were no national cemeteries and few reliable systems to track deaths.  Nearly half of the war dead were unidentified at burial.

By Spring of 1865, most Confederate supporters had already fled the now Union-occupied city of Charleston, and the city's remaining inhabitants were primarily recently freed blacks. It must have been a strange time: rubble in the streets, azaleas blooming, the shock and euphoria of the war’s end and the cautious embrace of freedom.

Union soldiers' graves at Washington Racecourse, 1865.
Union soldiers' graves at Washington Racecourse, 1865. (Library of Congress)

At some point during this period, a group of black workmen walked through the ruined city to the  Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, which the Confederate army had converted during the war into a open air prison for captured Union soldiers. Hundreds of prisoners there had died of disease and exposure and were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. The workers dug up the mass graves and reinterred each unidentified body in proper graves. They also built a fence around the site, identifying it as a cemetery. Over the entrance, they raised an arch inscribed with the words “Martyrs of the Race Track.”

According to Blight, ten thousand mostly black residents gathered at the racetrack on May 1, to  honor the fallen Union prisoners and celebrate their own nascent freedom. Children carried armfuls of roses;  women brought crosses and wreaths to decorate the graves. A children’s choir sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and ministers read from the Bible. Black men marched alongside black and white Union soldiers singing “John Brown’s Body.”

In a recent lecture on the topic, Blight describes the event.

"This was the first Memorial Day. African-Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina ... What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, and their feet, and their songs, what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution. That story got lost for more than a century.

Blight notes that during his research, he contacted archives and libraries in Charleston to find out more about the ceremony only to discover the event had been pretty much wiped from the local historical record.

"It showed the power of the lost cause in the wake of the war to erase the story," he said.

Further digging, though, unearthed more evidence of the event, including a drawing of the cemetery in a 1867 issue of Harper's Weekly.

Today, the physical evidence of that first Memorial Day has all but disappeared. The bodies of the prisoners were dug up again in the 1880s and reinterred yet again in another cemetery seventy miles away.  The grandstand is gone and the site is now a public park, ironically renamed after Wade Hampton, the former Confederate Civil War general and white supremacist governor of South Carolina.

One small plaque, recently installed at the site, is the only recognition of that first momentous Memorial Day celebration more than 150 years ago.