The City Magazine Since 1975

Early Honors

May 2018
Early Honors
WRITER: 

A circa-1865 stereo card (below) shows the race-course club house where Union officers were imprisoned; lower-ranked soldiers lived without any shelter.

It’s odd what America has forgotten about its day of remembering. The last Monday in May is set aside to honor those who died in the military. General John Logan is credited for creating the occasion when in 1868, as the leader of the Union veterans, he called for a national day to remember the Civil War dead. It was then dubbed “Decoration Day” for the flags, garlands, and bouquets brought to adorn graves. 

But the very first “decoration day” may well have been three years earlier in Charleston. Hampton Park was then the Washington Race Course, used by the Confederacy as a prison camp for Union soldiers. Amidst horrific conditions, some 260 men died and were buried in mass graves. But as the war drew to a close in April, former slaves set to work reinterring those soldiers in a cemetery they built nearby. They protected it with a picket fence, adding a sign that read “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

PHOTO: Union soldiers’ graves at Washington Race Course

By May 1, they were ready to hold a funeral. Nearly 3,000 African-American children led thousands of adults in a procession, carrying flowers to pile atop the graves as they sang “John Brown’s Body.” Sermons, prayers, and picnicking carried on for the rest of the day in this early Memorial Day, ironically held in the very same city were secession began.

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Photographs (2) courtesy of Loc.gov