Saturday, May 28, 2011


A number of towns around the nation claim holding the first Memorial Day, although the distinction generally goes to the town of Waterloo, in upstate New York. Not so fast.

MAY 1, 1865. More than 10,000 people gathered for a parade, to hear speeches and dedicate the graves of Union dead in what is now Hampton Park in Charleston, SC.The group consisted of several thousand black freedmen, northern missionaries and teachers who had arrived in Charleston to teach in freedmen schools post-War.

Hampton Park was originally the Planters Race Course and, during the final months of the Civil War, it was a hellish open-air Confederate prison. A total of 267 Union troops died at the camp, some of whom had been moved from infamous Andersonville in Georgia before it was liberated. The dead were originally buried in a mass grave by the Confederates, but after the war, members of black churches buried them in individual graves at the site of the camp.An arch over the graveyard entrance identified those buried there as "The Martyrs of the Race Course." The Union dead were later moved to national cemeteries.

Union cemetery, 1865 @ Planters Race Course

The Charleston commemoration was referred to at the time as Decoration Day, as were other early Memorial Day observances.The northern troops went home and the memory remained generally with blacks. Memory of the event was suppressed when white Democrats took back control of the state in 1876 and Southern states held their own Confederate Memorial Days.

Hampton Park, 1902

David Blight, a history professor at Yale, has researched the event. "As the Lost Cause tradition set in — the Confederate version of the meaning and memory of the war — no one in white Charleston or the state was interested in remembering the war through this event. At the end of the day you have to ask does it really matter who is first. But if the issue is what is the first event, Charleston occurred a full year earlier."

Memorial Day through the years was generally celebrated May 30. Beginning in 1971, the federal holiday was designated as the last Monday in May.

Hampton Park, today

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