Saturday, May 1, 2010

Honoring The Dead

The Washington Race Course Cemetery saw the burial of Union dead and the first Memorial Day on May 1st 1865.

Many communities set aside a day to mark the end of the Civil War and honor those who had died. Some of the towns who began these early Memorial or Decoration Days included Columbus Mississippi, Carbondale Illinois, and Sharpsburg Maryland, among others. The first of these remembrance is thought to have been held by former slaves on May 1st 1865 at the Washington Race Course in Charleston South Carolina.

The race course was used during the war as prison camp, and contained a mass grave behind the old grandstand of the Union soldiers who died there. Following the end of the war, the former slaves who lived in the area exhumed the bodies of the 257 Union soldiers who died there and reentered them in individual graves. There was a fence built and the area was declared to be a Union cemetery and named the “Martyrs of the Race Course“. It was reported by Charleston newspapers that on May 1st 1865 a crowd of around 10,000 including some 2,800 children attended ceremonies that included sermons, singing, picnicking on the grounds and laying of flowers. The 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops drilled and did a march around the cemetery. This then became the first Decoration Day.

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