Memorial Day: How Former Slaves Created a National Holiday

American summers are built around three holidays: Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day.

Memorial Day and Labor Day are the bookends. The July 4th celebration is the centerpiece. Most Americans view Memorial Day as the “kickoff” for summer…and it is.

But there’s much more to this holiday than we think. Unfortunately, many contemporary histories of Memorial Day only share part of the story. It’s why we need to go back to the beginning.

The curtain for Memorial Day opened on May 1, 1865.

It had been less than a month since America’s bloody Civil War ended. The Southern states laid in ruin. Over 620,000 soldiers–an entire generation of American men–gave their lives on dozens of battlefields, from Vicksburg to Gettysburg.

On a spring day in Charleston, SC a group of former slaves coordinated a memorial event. The location was the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, a country-club-turned-prison for Union soldiers. Behind the grandstand was a mass grave holding hundreds of Union soldier corpses.

Everyone in town knew about the mass grave.

The buried Union soldiers, most of them captured after being wounded, suffered greatly before they passed. They were fed poorly and treated terribly. They also received little to no medical attention to their wounds or the diseases that plagued the prison camp. Their dead bodies were dumped in a mass grave without any identification nor notification of kin. Nobody knew their names nor wanted to know their names. In white Charleston, these dead Union soldiers were treated like trash.

The black men and women of Charleston knew the sacrifice of these Union soldiers.

After all, it was northern Republican abolitionism that fueled the Union army to fight. And it was a slain president Abraham Lincoln, also murdered only weeks earlier, who had issued an Emancipation Proclamation to free them from slavery.

These Charleston ex-slaves wanted to give these Union soldiers a proper funeral and an honorable burial.

First they dug up the mass grave and exhumed 257 Union soldiers. Then they reburied each body in a separate grave in a new cemetery. At the entrance they posted the words: “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

This act of service would’ve been enough. But then these former slaves then did something truly remarkable. They organized an all-day parade event to commemorate their lives.

According to two newspapers of the day, over 10,000 gathered to remember these soldiers.

The crowd included freed slaves, white Republicans,  and visiting missionaries. The parade was held at the race track of the Washington Race Course and Country Club, the very spot that once held this Confederate prison camp.

On May 1, 1868, thousands of former slaves gathered (and danced) in the Confederate city of Charleston to celebrate a new day in the South. A choir of 2800 black children led the procession carrying flower bouquets and singing “John Brown’s Body.” All day long this mostly black crowd sang spirituals, listened to sermons and read Scripture. It was a holiday–a HOLY DAY–sanctified for gratitude, honor and freedom.

Ironically, it wasn’t the first black-led parade n Charleston. That honor goes to The 55th Massachusetts Colored Regiment who, on February 21, 1865, marched into Charleston to claim it for Union victory…rejoicing and singing. The 55th were likely part of the May 1 celebration too, as they mustered near Charleston until May 7. There’s also evidence the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment attended this event.

In time, similar spontaneous celebrations occurred to remember the sacrifice of the Union army to liberate the slave.

These celebrations primarily happened in northern states, as there was little joy in the southern states at that time.

Nevertheless, the memorials became such a prominent celebration that in 1868, a Union general named John A. Logan proposed an official annual day of recognition (on May 30) that he called “Decoration Day.” It was a day to honor, and decorate, the graves of all soldiers–Union and Confederate–who died in the Civil War. On May 30, 1868, the newly-opened Arlington National Cemetery held it’s own “memorial” event, the first national commemoration on record.

In 1881, President James Garfield issued an executive order for government workers to recognize “Decoration Day” traditions. By 1890 every Northern state now observed Decoration Day as an official holiday, but it wasn’t until World War 1 and 2 that a new holiday began to emerge. “Memorial Day,” as it was called, slowly replaced “Decoration Day” as a time to honor all of America’s war dead, from the Revolutionary War to present time.

In 1968 Memorial Day was christened to occur on the last Monday of May.

Many historians still dispute the origins of Decoration Day because the practice of decorating the graves of slain soldiers was common prior to the Charleston, SC event. However, these earlier remembrances were individual in nature. The Charleston, SC “memorial” was an organized event with a parade and other activities to show gratitude and honor. It was a collective and public event. The May 1, 1865 event, organized by former slaves, was also unique in that it chose to remember the Union army that had liberated them…and did it with Scripture, sermons and spiritual music. It was as much a church revival as a public funeral.

Nevertheless, it was still the first time a group of people gathered to memorialize the dead from any American war.

This is the piece often missing in contemporary re-tellings of this story today. Memorial Day wasn’t just a day that former slaves threw a parade and remembered Civil War dead. These black slaves organized this event as a distinctly religious event to memorialize the dead Union soldiers. Why? Because that was the reason Union soldiers fought to their death. They laid down their lives to liberate the Black slave…and these former slaves were deeply grateful for that sacrifice.

It’s why we can’t forget telling our true history…and the whole story.

Some historians think this Charleston event was intentionally lost to time because the white Charlestonians didn’t want the story told. It didn’t fit the narrative of their culture. They didn’t want Union soldiers being honored. There was no love lost between the South and the North–before or after the War. It took South Carolina and the white citizens of Charleston decades to recover. And the fact this event was organized by former slaves only poured salt in the wound. It was reason enough to bury the story along with these Union soldiers.

And they did just that. Eventually even the horse track and country club that once housed this Union solder prison was torn down. And these Union soldiers graves were exhumed a second time and moved to Beaufort National Cemetery. Today, the area that once housed a Union soldier prison camp is a beautiful city park, with nothing but a single sign to remind park visitors.

It’s why this story is so dusty and forgotten.

But the truth remains. And so did newspaper evidence of this early event.

It’s why Memorial Day isn’t just a day to barbecue brats and burgers, and officially kick off the summer. It’s a day to reflect on the sacrifices, remember the soldier dead and restore history. Again, it wasn’t until 1968–over 100 years after this Charleston day–that Memorial Day was officially observed as a national U.S. holiday.

But there’s one more piece of history that Americans overlook. In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed “The National Moment of Remembrance Act” to encourage all U.S. citizens, at 3:00 p.m. every Memorial Day, to stop and pray as a “symbolic act of unity…to honor the men and women of the United States who died in the pursuit of freedom and peace.”

Memorial Day was, is and shall forever be, according to this Congressional act, “a day of prayer for permanent peace.”

All gave some…but some gave all.

And thanks to former slaves America has a “holy day” to remember her war dead.

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