The First Memorial Day - By Denis Mueller

Despite the ruins of war in the city of
Charleston, the
flowers were in full bloom. President Lincoln had
shot only a couple of weeks earlier and with
of all Union soldiers buried in unmarked graves,
and an
equal number of Confederates, death was

Charleston had seen more than its own share of
death. The
city had been turned into rubble and all of this
presented the country with the overwhelming
burden of
memorialization. After the war there had been
speeches and memorials but something special was
about to
happen in Charleston.

In the final year of the war, the Confederates
had turned
the planter's racecourse into an interment camp
for Union
soldiers. The conditions were awful as the men
were forced
to live without even tents for shelter. As they
lie in the
open course, they were exposed to the whims of
natures with
no protection against storms of the cold or heat.
Many died
and the former slaves of Charleston could hear
anguished cries during the night. So these newly
blacks insisted on a proper burial for the men
once the war
had ended. At least 357 had died during this
period and
their suffering called for some kind of
memorialization. So
the first "Decoration Day" was born.

The former slaves, and their unionist allies in
the town,
decided to hold the event at the racetrack, which
had housed
the prisoners. In ten days they built a suitable
for the dead, painting the fences, repairing the
landscaping, until the ground was ready for their
day. The
workmen painted a sign at the entrance of the
ground, which
proclaimed "Martyrs of the Race Course."

On May 1st, at nine o'clock in the morning, the
began. Three thousand black school children
marched around
the course with flowers in their hand singing
"John Browns
Body." They were followed by the women of the
Association, a group formed to distribute
clothing and food
to the newly freed slaves, who carried wreaths
and crosses
for the men.

The official dedication of the event was carried
forth by
the ministers of all the black churches of
Charleston. They
read prayers and bible passages while giving
birth to an
American tradition. By doing such they created
meaning for
the war in a very public way, which was to be
followed by
future generations. The grandstand saw over
thirty speeches
from Union officials, abolitionist missionaries,
while the
crowd listened to memorials for those who died

Picnics followed the speeches and that afternoon
the Fifty-
Fourth Massachusetts and the Thirty-Fifth and
104th Colored
regiments, marched in double column around the
graves. They
held drills on the infield in order to
memorialize the
martyrs. People cried all over that day and the
which we call Memorial Day, was founded.

A New York Tribune correspondent called it "a
procession of
friends and mourners as South Carolina and the
United States
never saw before." This story has long been
forgotten and I
bet that the Fox News Channel, CNN, and any other
of the
networks will not say a single word about it this

Source: David W. Blight, Race and Reunion

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