Then & Now: Memorial Day Began with People Recently Freed from Enslavement


A woman visits the grave of a fallen loved one in Upstate New York on Decoration Day. (Library of Congress)

Immediately after the end of the Civil War, people recently freed from enslavement in Charleston, SC, honored fallen Union soldiers marking the first Memorial Day.

The first national recognition of Memorial Day, or “Decoration Day,” occurred on May 30, 1868, in Arlington National Cemetery. The United States sought to unify a still deeply divided country by honoring the 600,000 to 800,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who died.

Photograph of some of the Union graves around the race track. (Photo: attributed to George Barnard, April 1865, Library of Congress)

Several locales across the country claim that Memorial Day began in their community as early as 1866. However, David Blight, an American History Professor at Yale University, discovered in 1996 old records of a significant commemoration event for fallen Union soldiers organized by a group of people freed from enslavement less than a month after the war ended.

Towards the end of the Civil War, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, SC, was converted into a temporary prison for Union military captives. Over 260 prisoners died from disease and exposure while held in the track’s open-air infield. The bodies were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

Charleston fell on February 18, 1865. The Confederate troops retreated. Those freed from enslavement remained. The war ended on April 9, 1865.

While enlisted soldiers were imprisoned in the open air of the track’s infield, Union officers were housed in what had been the race track's Ladies Club, where the 1865 Memorial Day events took place. (Photo: George N. Barnard, 1865, Library of Congress)

An extraordinary thing happened next. Charleston's newly emancipated men and women exhumed the bodies from the mass grave. They reinterred those fallen Union soldiers in a new cemetery with a tall, whitewashed fence inscribed with the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

With the work completed, on May 1, 1865, a crowd of 10,000 people, primarily people freed from enslavement, and some white missionaries staged a parade around the site. Three thousand Black children carried flowers and sang “John Brown’s Body.” Members of the renowned 54th
Massachusetts and other Black Union regiments performed drills. Black ministers read Bible verses.

A pencil drawing (c. 1860) of some of the many Union graves found in and around the race track. (Image: Library of Congress, contributed by Alfred R. Waud)

In 1868, John A. Logan, the Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), helped establish May 30 “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Decoration Day was established. GAR was an organization of Union military veterans. GAR on a cemetery headstone signifies the interment of a Union Army veteran.

After World War I, the observance’s name was changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day.” In 1971, Memorial Day was designated as the last Monday in May.

However you celebrate Memorial Day—with a get-together, a parade, a visit to the cemetery, or a quiet day at home—remember to remember. Memorial Day was established to remember those who have died in our nation’s wars and reflect on the ideals and freedoms they were sent to protect.

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter the words, but to live by them.” – John F. Kennedy


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