The First Memorial Day Began in Charleston, SC

The New York Times features an essay by David W. Blight on the first Memorial Day.  Excerpts follow

MOST Americans know that Memorial Day is about honoring the nation’s war dead. It is also a holiday devoted to department store sales, half-marathons, picnics, baseball and auto racing. But where did it begin, who created it, and why?

At the end of the Civil War, Americans faced a formidable challenge: how to memorialize 625,000 dead soldiers, Northern and Southern. As Walt Whitman mused, it was “the dead, the dead, the dead – our dead – or South or North, ours all” that preoccupied the country. After all, if the same number of Americans per capita had died in Vietnam as died in the Civil War, four million names would be on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, instead of 58,000.

Officially, in the North, Memorial Day emerged in 1868 when the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, called on communities to conduct grave-decorating ceremonies. On May 30, funereal events attracted thousands of people at hundreds of cemeteries in countless towns, cities and mere crossroads. By the 1870s, one could not live in an American town, North or South, and be unaware of the spring ritual.

But the practice of decorating graves – which gave rise to an alternative name, Decoration Day – didn’t start with the 1868 events, nor was it an exclusively Northern practice. In 1866 the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Columbus, Ga., chose April 26, the anniversary of Gen. Joseph Johnston’s final surrender to Gen. William T. Sherman, to commemorate fallen Confederate soldiers. Later, both May 10, the anniversary of Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s death, and June 3, the birthday of Jefferson Davis, were designated Confederate Memorial Day in different states.

Memorial Days were initially occasions of sacred bereavement, and from the war’s end to the early 20th century they helped forge national reconciliation around soldierly sacrifice, regardless of cause. In North and South, orators and participants frequently called Memorial Day an “American All Saints Day,” likening it to the European Catholic tradition of whole towns marching to churchyards to honor dead loved ones.

But the ritual quickly became the tool of partisan memory as well, at least through the violent Reconstruction years. In the South, Memorial Day was a means of confronting the Confederacy’s defeat but without repudiating its cause. Some Southern orators stressed Christian notions of noble sacrifice. Others, however, used the ritual for Confederate vindication and renewed assertions of white supremacy. Blacks had a place in this Confederate narrative, but only as time-warped loyal slaves who were supposed to remain frozen in the past.

The Lost Cause tradition thrived in Confederate Memorial Day rhetoric; the Southern dead were honored as the true “patriots,” defenders of their homeland, sovereign rights, a natural racial order and a “cause” that had been overwhelmed by “numbers and resources” but never defeated on battlefields.

Yankee Memorial Day orations often righteously claimed the high ground of blood sacrifice to save the Union and destroy slavery. It was not uncommon for a speaker to honor the fallen of both sides, but still lay the war guilt on the “rebel dead.” Many a lonely widow or mother at these observances painfully endured expressions of joyous death on the altars of national survival.

Some events even stressed the Union dead as the source of a new egalitarian America, and a civic rather than a racial or ethnic definition of citizenship. In Wilmington, Del., in 1869, Memorial Day included a procession of Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians and Catholics; white Grand Army of the Republic posts in parade with a black post; and the “Mount Vernon Cornet Band (colored)” keeping step with the “Irish Nationalists with the harp and the sunburst flag of Erin.”

But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.

Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.

The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

The symbolic power of this Low Country planter aristocracy’s bastion was not lost on the freedpeople, who then, in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged a parade of 10,000 on the track. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.

After the dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.

The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.

Despite the size and some newspaper coverage of the event, its memory was suppressed by white Charlestonians in favor of their own version of the day. From 1876 on, after white Democrats took back control of South Carolina politics and the Lost Cause defined public memory and race relations, the day’s racecourse origin vanished.

Indeed, 51 years later, the president of the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Charleston received an inquiry from a United Daughters of the Confederacy official in New Orleans asking if it was true that blacks had engaged in such a burial rite in 1865; the story had apparently migrated westward in community memory. Mrs. S. C. Beckwith, leader of the association, responded tersely, “I regret that I was unable to gather any official information in answer to this.”

Beckwith may or may not have known about the 1865 event; her own “official” story had become quite different and had no place for the former slaves’ march on their masters’ racecourse. In the struggle over memory and meaning in any society, some stories just get lost while others attain mainstream recognition.

AS we mark the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, we might reflect on Frederick Douglass’s words in an 1878 Memorial Day speech in New York City, in which he unwittingly gave voice to the forgotten Charleston marchers.

He said the war was not a struggle of mere “sectional character,” but a “war of ideas, a battle of principles.” It was “a war between the old and the new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization … and in dead earnest for something beyond the battlefield.” With or against Douglass, we still debate the “something” that the Civil War dead represent.

The old racetrack is gone, but an oval roadway survives on the site in Hampton Park, named for Wade Hampton, former Confederate general and the governor of South Carolina after the end of Reconstruction. The old gravesite of the Martyrs of the Race Course is gone too; they were reinterred in the 1880s at a national cemetery in Beaufort, S.C.

But the event is no longer forgotten. Last year I had the great honor of helping a coalition of Charlestonians, including the mayor, Joseph P. Riley, dedicate a marker to this first Memorial Day by a reflecting pool in Hampton Park.

By their labor, their words, their songs and their solemn parade on their former owners’ racecourse, black Charlestonians created for themselves, and for us, the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.

David W. Blight, a professor of history and the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale, is the author of the forthcoming “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.”

Thomas Park – American Revolution Battle Site at Breach Inlet

Thomson Park is a new public park on Sullivan’s Island overlooking Breach Inlet. Permanent exhibits commemorate the patriot defense against a British attack from Long Island (Isle of Palms) in June 1776. This forgotten fight was a key to the momentous American victory in the Battle of Sullivan’s Island.

Saturday, June 18, 2011
11:00-11:30am Ceremony at Breach Inlet
11:40am-12:30pm Reception & Exhibition
in the Fellowship Hall of Sunrise Presbyterian Church
In case of inclement weather, all activities will be in the church Fellowship Hall.
For more information, email Doug MacIntyre at, call 843-860-9173, or visit

CLAW Executive Director Vernon Burton Mentioned by Sonia Sotomayor as an Important Influence in Her Life

Sonia Sotomayor delivers personal, inspiring message at University of South Carolina graduation

The Daily Gamecock: The official daily newspaper of the University of South Carolina

Weaving a rags to riches tale that extolled the virtues of hard work and higher education, Justice Sonia Sotomayor told thousands of USC graduates that an education’s value should be judged on its impact in life instead of high-paying jobs or fancy titles.

The short commencement address to graduates inside the Colonial Life Arena touched on the harsh realities that lie ahead for many graduates: the job market is tougher, and average college debt is growing annually.
But using vivid examples from two key figures in her life—her mother and South Carolina native and historian Vernon Burton— she delivered an uplifting message that honed on the relentless pursuit of excellence in the midst of any circumstance.

Her speech addressed none of her legal scholarship that earned her a place on America’s highest court and talked little of her professional successes.

It was a personal, reflective address that attributed many of her current beliefs to her mother, a Puerto Rico native and Army veteran who managed to support two children in the Bronx by constantly working and never giving up hope for a better life.

Sotomayor’s father died when she was 9, but her mother funded private school and college because “that was the best for her children.”

“Education was always paramount to my mother,” Sotomayor said.

At the age of 45, Sotomayor’s mother returned to college herself in an effort to make more money for her family.

Her mother’s values were supplemented by her encounter with Vernon Burton during her time as a student at Princeton University. Burton, a native of Ninety Six, South Carolina, was a hunter and fisher who often sold boiled peanuts to help his family. His Southern drawl came in deep contrast with the New York accent Sotomayor carries.

“It seemed a very deep chasm existed between his world and mine,” Sotomayor said.

But the justice came to become good friends with the hard working, incredibly intelligent and passionate Burton. The two often commiserated over stories of helping their families and working through adversity.

Burton is now a distinguished professor at Clemson University.

Sotomayor said the opportunity to serve as a Supreme Court justice led her often to pinch herself to make sure it wasn’t a dream. She called the opportunity to speak and receive a honorary doctorate in law from USC another “pinch myself” moment.

Charleston Carifest exposes Carnaval in the Dominican Republic

Charleston, SC- May 10, 2011.
For 500 hundred years the island nation of the Dominican Republic has reveled in its rambunctious customs – music, dancing, masks and mayhem. The colourful chaotic, subversive, upside down world of carnival in the Dominican Republic is explored in a new documentary, Colores del Carnaval Dominicano to premiere at the Avery Research Institute on May 26, 2011 at 6:00 PM.

Award winning documentary film makers Ruben Duran and Donna Pinnick have produced a film that examines the living tradition of the oldest carnival in the Americas.

“The Documentary is excellent, well designed, well documented, good cinematic pace, agile and entertaining. The visuals play well with the narrative, photos and testimonials”, states Dr. Dagoberto Tejeda.
Dr Silvio Torres-Saillant states, “It is both educational, in a truly meaningful way, and entertaining, in keeping with the spirit of celebration that informs the carnival tradition. One gets to see the Carnaval as a cultural expression that must clearly rank among the world’s best known carnival traditions, such as Rio de Janeiro’s and Trinidad’s.”

The documentary serves as the introduction for Charleston Carifest Caribbean Carnival which is celebrated in June during Caribbean American Heritage Month. Each year Charleston Carifest celebrates a different Caribbean Country and the honour goes to the Dominican Republic this year.

Visit for more information on Charleston Carifest 2K11
Contact: Lorna Shelton
PO Box 32278
Charleston, SC 29417-2278

Letter from Charleston

An expanded version of a Letter to the Editor written by CLAW Associate Director Simon Lewis for the Guardian Weekly:

It’s a beautiful sight. The sun is just coming up behind Fort Sumter in front of us, and behind us, across the harbor, the gracious steeple-punctuated skyline of Charleston is coming more clearly into view. A squadron of improbably graceful pelicans skims across the surface, their wingtips centimeters above the calm surface; terns are diving, plovers are keening.

I am here at this site, however, not for its outstanding beauty but for an awkward anniversary, the commemoration of the first shot of the American Civil War, fired from this very spot exactly 150 years ago.

The crowd around me is almost entirely white, some sporting t-shirts adorned with the Confederate battle flag, a few official re-enactors in Confederate grey, a young man holding a red South Carolina banner, and a few recognizable local politicians.

The ceremony draws out the contradictions of claiming and celebrating both Southern and American identity at the same time. The program opens with everyone reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, asserting the indivisibility of the American Republic. It continues with an unabashedly Christian prayer from a local pastor.

As we get closer to the Big Bang—the firing of an original 1847 Seacoast mortar—the sourest note of the proceedings points to the way the Civil War divides the contemporary US not so much (or not only) on regional lines, but on political ones. The event’s m.c., tells us that the mortar has been obtained through the good offices of a band of brothers in Wisconsin. “While you’re about it,” they had joshed, “why don’t you fire off a real shell at Fort Sumter?”

Sure enough, the firing of the shell is greeted by a tall dude with a long black beard (in another context he might have been mistaken for a hippy—or a member of the Taliban) yelling, “The South shall rise again.” Still, at least it’s only one dude, and he gets some lip from a presumed “Yankee” woman nearby who snarls, “Get over it—y’all lost.”

The keynote speaker is the conservative Charleston state senator, Glenn McConnell, a devoted Civil War buff. McConnell’s speech attempts to reconcile some of the event’s contradictions, defending South Carolina’s right to secede in 1860, but celebrating the eradication of slavery. He talks up the shared culture of Southern blacks and whites, with no reference to the hundred years between the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

The contradictions cannot comfortably be contained in the commemoration of the rebel bombardment of Fort Sumter. They will surely dog the remaining four years of the Civil War sesquicentennial, especially in the South. I look forward to 2015 when we can maybe all just mourn the dead—the failure of politics, and the folly of war.

Simon Lewis

Kevin McIlvaine as Frederick Douglass

History comes to life as the entertainer, ordained minister, and historian Kevin McIlvaine recreates the presence of American social reformer, orator, writer, and spokesman Frederick Douglass in a one-man performance at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture on May 5, 2011 at 6:00 pm.

The event is free and open to the public.

Jews, Slavery and the Civil War Conference

The Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program and the new Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston are pleased to announce a two-day conference on “Jews, Slavery and the Civil War” to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the conflict. The conference will cover a range of themes including Jewish attitudes toward and involvement in slavery and abolition, Jewish soldiering and wartime service, the Jewish experience on the home front, the impact of the war on Jewish identity and institutions, the post-war experience of Jewish veterans, Jews and Reconstruction, and Jewish commemoration and memorialization. For more information, contact Dr. Adam Mendelsohn at 843-953-2036 or

A complete schedule is available at