Memorial Day ceremonies rooted in Charleston tradition

Charleston, S.C. — Hampton Park is a large green space on the Peninsula loved by runners, walkers, and cyclists.

The park, though, has a complex history.

 “The racetrack that is now Hampton Park was used as a prisoner of war camp for Union POWs,” said Adam Domby, assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston.

At the time the park was called the Washington Racecourse and Jockey Club.

257 Union prisoners died in the camp and were buried in a mass grave.

“A martyr dies for something greater than himself,” Domby said, “In this case the martyrs died for African Americans to be free.”

Freed slaves spent the weeks before what historians have labeled the first Memorial Day exhuming the bodies of the soldiers, creating a cemetery, and reburying the troops, according to Domby.

They put a sign up marking the site “The Martyrs at the Racecourse.”

Then, on May 1, 1865, they paid tribute.

“They literally covered the graves with flowers,” said Domby. “There were so many flowers, according to reports of the time.”

Thousands of freed slaves joined Union soldiers in a march to the cemetery.

The ceremony was labeled “Decoration Day” and was featured parades, singing, and picnics.

“Some of these soldiers themselves had previously walked these streets as salves before entering the Union service,” Domby added.

It was the first celebration of its kind, according to Domby.

“The entire African American community in Charleston would take the day off work to come here, and that very act was an expression of freedom that they never could have done during the era of slavery,” he explained.

It was a ritual of remembrance that is now itself remembered by a plaque in Hampton Park marking the first Memorial Day.

“Remembering the Americans who died so we can be more free is what those who founded the memorial day here in Charleston wanted,” Domby said. “Not just that men died for our country but what they died for specifically.”

The martyrs were exhumed again in 1871 and buried at the national cemeteries in Beaufort and Florence.

The first Memorial Day service, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, was celebrated on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Ceremony. The department traces the official history of the first celebration in Arlington to a Decoration Day service, celebrated much the same as the event in Charleston three years earlier, in 1868 established by a group of Union veterans.

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