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The Forgotten First Memorial Day: Freed Slaves Honoring Fallen Union Soldiers In Charleston

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 29, 2024 3:00 am

The Forgotten First Memorial Day: Freed Slaves Honoring Fallen Union Soldiers In Charleston

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 29, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, formerly enslaved people in Charleston, SC decided to honor the Union soldiers who had perished at a racecourse converted into a POW camp. Then, as Dan Welch of the Gettysburg Foundation puts it: "A procession at a gravesite, a procession with 9,000 spectators - was all but forgotten in just two years."

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Let's get into the story. Here's Dan Welch of the Gettysburg Foundation. Land that would later become what was known as the race course was part of a plantation owned by John Gibbs and known as the Grove or as Orange Grove Plantation. It was quite a large plantation.

It was staffed by hundreds upon hundreds of slaves. And within just 20 years, in 1791, part of Gibbs' plantation was acquired by an organization known as the South Carolina Jockey Club. The South Carolina Jockey Club is going to build this track for horse racing with the vision of making it the finest horse racing location in the South and in the country itself. And by 1792, the course was ready for what would become an annual horse race.

And it would attract thousands upon thousands of spectators. For one week in February, Charleston became the epicenter of the southern aristocracy. Racing was on a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Social events every evening. Social events kicking off before race week and after race week is over. Race week became the apex of Charleston's social season. This was it. If you wore anybody in the South, if you had money, this is what you did every February.

If you were into horse racing and horses in general, you were a northerner. This is where you went in February, every year in Charleston. But beyond the beautiful Italianante grandstand, the apex of the social season, the hobnobbing that would take place among Charleston's elite. By the time of the American Civil War, Charleston was the cradle of secession. Charleston and South Carolina had been screaming for secession for decades. Richmond, Atlanta, Savannah, all those other major southern metropolitan areas were not the cradle of secession. It was Charleston and it was South Carolina. The secession movement had been born in Charleston years earlier. It had been brought into reality in December 1860 when they vote for secession and it had been baptized in blood in April of 1861. Now four years later, Charleston had suffered the effects of a long siege and with the arrival of thousands of prisoners of war, union prisoners of war, a jewel of the South had lost most of its luster. February was no longer the social season, was no longer the racing of the horses at this race course. February 1865 found hundreds upon hundreds of union prisoners of war suffering the effects of exposure, malnutrition, illness, and disease at the Washington race course.

And when they died, they would be buried behind this grandstand. What was it like to be a prisoner? Many of the accounts that we have of the race course, what the prison was actually like, come to us from a man by the name of James Redpath and he's going to be an important person to our story. Redpath was a longtime abolitionist and supporter of John Brown.

He had been born in Scotland, had been an immigrant to America in 1849 and upon getting off the boat, as they say, his first job in this country was to become a correspondent for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, traveling the South prior to the war and reporting on the conditions of the southern slave and eventually published a small book from the newspaper articles he had written. In regards to where prisoners slept at the race course prison, Redpath reported this. He said they were not on mahogany bedsteads nor oaken bedsteads nor even iron bedsteads. They were not feather beds and alas, they were not beds of down. They were beds of stunted grass with little trenches or gutters cut around them.

Generally, these beds were about six feet long and wide enough to let five or six men lie side by side. Do you know why our poor, starved, abused soldiers cut these little gutters in the hard earth instead of lying down anywhere? It was to keep themselves dry, Redpath said, for the ground was level and when the rain fell heavily and as they say, it comes down in buckets full here in the summer, the earth would have been saturated if they would not have dug these little gullies to drain off the water. Redpath asked his readers, how would you like to lie on the bare ground in all sorts of weather with a city full of houses in sight but no roof to cover you, with woods nearby but not fuel enough to cook your scanty and half rotten rations with and no shade, with shade trees everywhere in view? Our soldiers had to suffer such fiendish cruelty. Regarding the food served at the race course prison, Redpath reported that into all this suffering were added the awful agonies of hunger. They had half enough, even a putrid food to eat. Some of them became raving mad with hunger. Food, food, food, was their constant thought and cry. The rebels drove away the colored people who tried to bring our prisoners food and threatened the Irish and German women who threw bread across the ditch to them. Redpath said that the sandy soil at the race course is full of loathsome, unclean creatures and the prisoners had no means of keeping themselves clean. So they were tormented with these vermin and with swarms of sand flies and mosquitoes.

As some of them had no trousers, their legs were blistered with the heat and they then became festered and full of sores. Conditions at the Washington race course prison only grew worse. In December of 1864, just three months into the prison's existence, things were so bad at the race course that a flag of truce boat arrived to take home many of these union prisoners suffering numerous maladies. The only irony? Many of these men would die waiting at the race course for that flag of truce boat and those negotiations to be worked out. And those men, along with the general population at the race course, would be buried behind that grandstand. And you're listening to Dan Welch of the Gettysburg Foundation telling an untold and important story when we come back.

More of the story behind the story of how Memorial Day came to be here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to innovation, culture and faith, are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses. Go to to learn more. Listen to Uncanny USA wherever you get your BBC podcasts, if you dare.

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We're honoring those who died for this great country in the line of duty. We also continue with our story diving into the forgotten decoration day, perhaps the first example of Memorial Day in this country. When we last left off, Dan Welch of the Gettysburg Foundation was telling us about the prisoner of war camp inside the Washington race course in Charleston, South Carolina.

Let's return to the story. Two hundred union soldiers died in camp. Behind that grandstand would be a mass grave, only yards across that deadline. A little ditch in the ground telling these prisoners where and where they could not step. Uncle James Redpath, as he became known by many of the African American children of Charleston in the months after the war, wrote about these men, wrote about the conditions of their burial, wrote about their sacrifice when he said two hundred and fifty seven of them were found dead and were buried in an enclosed piece of pasture nearby. If seven were found dead, for example, they caused some of our soldiers to dig a trench, a shallow pit, seldom more than three feet deep. And then they would throw the corpses of our brothers in, place them side by side without coffins and often stripping them naked first. There were no religious rites performed, no clergymen read the service for the dead, no sympathizing eye looked on, and no heart beat sadly for our martyrs. The rebels covered them up, making little rows on the tops of the long mound to show how many corpses lay in the long grave.

And at the head of each of a piece, a board with a number on it, number one, number two, and so on, up to number two hundred and fifty seven, nothing more on any of them. Now I don't want you to walk away from this program today thinking, wow, these Confederates, they were a really tough, hard, mean lot. They mistreated all of our Union boys in all of these prisons across the South.

In South Carolina, Georgia, and many other locations, Alabama, even the reaches of Texas. Because the reality is, prisoner of war camps in the North for Confederate soldiers were just as bad, and casualties mounted just as quickly, and mass graves and mass trenches were established at those locations as well. The prison would soon be empty, however, as the Union war machine prepared to once and for all subjugate Charleston after four years of war. Throughout the night of February 17th and February 18th, 1865, Confederate soldiers pulled out of Charleston. Lieutenant Augustus G. Bennett, commander of the 21st United States Colored Troops, said this in his official report. He said, At about one o'clock, the 21st United States Colored Troops, 900 strong under the command of Major Richard H. Willoughby, made their entry into the city, having crossed over from James Island. Of the arrival to Charleston by Union soldiers, Charles Coffin, a reporter for the Boston Evening Journal, was there to see the 21st USCT march into the town. And many in its ranks, Coffin reminded his readers, were formerly slaves in the city of Charleston. Charles Coffin said, With the old flag above them, its fadeless stars and crimson folds waving in the breeze, keeping step to freedom's drumbeat, up the grass-grown streets past the slave marts, where their wives and children, their brothers and fathers were themselves had been sold in the public stables, laying aside their arms, they began to work the fire engines to extinguish the flames, and in the spirit of the Redeemer of men, saving that which was lost. The final subjugation of Charleston was not something that could be very quickly relished. As the Confederates began to evacuate the city, they set on fire many numerous public buildings, stores, warehouses, and with a gentle harbor breeze, those fires were fanned and began to spread throughout most of Charleston. And in this act of humanity, Bennett is going to release his 900 man strong unit, the 21st USCT, many of them had been slaves of Charleston, he's going to release these men to now help some of the same white citizens that had bought and sold them to help extinguish the flames of that city, of their house, of their property.

It was an astonishing act for the time. After the Union Army swept through South Carolina in February of 1865, black refugees, African Americans, newly freed slaves from across the state are going to flock to Charleston. And as more African Americans, more former slaves, more freedmen begin to arrive in Charleston, violence, tension, and racial confrontations will proliferate, particularly amongst this community and the 127th New York Volunteers. The men of the 127th New York Volunteers reportedly tormented the freemen, they tormented especially black merchants. One observer of the time said that the 127th New York Volunteer Infantry insulted the colored people everywhere.

They stoned them, knocked them down, and cut them. A Boston Commonwealth reporter said that the white provost guards forced unsuspecting blacks to work as laborers and smashed stalls in the blacks marketplace located in the northern sector of the city. In addition to pillaging homes and businesses owned by black Charlestonians, the white Yankees also reportedly beat and raped the former slaves. Peaceable colored citizens have been kicked out of their homes, knocked down in the streets, bled with brick baths and bayonets, cut with knives, pounded and mauled in the places of business by United States soldiers.

It was against this black drop that the African American community, the newly freed low country slaves, rose above all of this to organize, create a procession and a ceremony for those that had given what Lincoln called that last full measure of devotion. Those that had died at that race course prison in North Charleston. Charleston had devolved from a jewel of the south to a casualty of war and its ideals. Most of the town lay in ruins.

Numerous other buildings stood vacant. Thousands of former slaves had flocked to Charleston as refugees with a city ill-equipped to handle the numbers and needs. African Americans faced mounting tension between white citizens of Charleston as well as those who wore the uniform that had liberated them. Even with this backdrop, the African American community began to lay the groundwork for what would become the now forgotten decoration day by making sure those Union soldiers that had died as prisoners of war in the Charleston race course prison received a proper burial and form of remembrance. As Charleston was subjugated and liberated, a number of African Americans between 24 to 28 workmen all from local African American churches in Charleston came together and marched out to the race course itself and they began to exhume the dead.

Took them about 10 days to do their work. Each Union soldier that had been buried hastily would receive a coffin, a headboard, any information about that soldier that lay in that trench as they could find. They began to then construct a large 10 foot high white washed fence around the cemetery and last but not least at the entrance they built an arch. And the arch would read Martyrs of the Race Course. As they did this in April 1865, the war finally came to an end as some of the last remaining Confederate field units in the far western Trans-Mississippi theater were just beginning to receive the news of the end of their movement.

On May 1st, 1865 an estimated crowd of 9,000 people visited the former race course prison and had a ceremony with the laying of flowers on the graves of the prisoners. And you've been listening to Dan Welch of the Gettysburg Foundation tell one heck of a story about the fall of Charleston and what 20 plus African Americans did to honor the fallen Union dead at a race course in Charleston. When we come back, we'll hear more of this remarkable story here on Our American Stories. I'm Katja Adler, host of The Global Story. Over the last 25 years I've covered conflicts in the Middle East, political and economic crises in Europe, drug cartels in Mexico. Now I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why and what it all means.

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Shop now at the Home Depot or How doers get more done. And we continue with our American stories and the final portion of the story of what could be the origins of Memorial Day. Telling the story is Dan Welch of the Gettysburg Foundation. When we last left off, Dan was telling us about how emancipated slaves had decided to honor the Union war dead who fell at the Washington race course prisoner of war camp in Charleston, South Carolina.

Let's return to the story. The crowd was mainly comprised that day of African-Americans, freed slaves, children and Union soldiers. The Charleston Daily News, the following day on May 2nd, 1865, wrote this. So the ceremonies of the dedication of the ground where our buried 257 Union soldiers took place in the presence of an immense gathering yesterday, fully 10,000 persons were present, mostly of the colored population. The day's activities began when a large crowd made a procession to the cemetery.

The Charleston Daily News also reported the following day that the procession was formed shortly after nine o'clock and made a beautiful appearance, nearly everyone present bearing a handsome bouquet of flowers. The colored children, about 2800 in number, marched first over the burial ground, strewing the graves with their flowers as they passed. The Charleston Daily News continued that after the children came the Patriotic Association of Colored Men, an association formed for the purpose of assisting in the distribution of the freedmen's supplies. These numbered about 100 members.

The Mutual Aid Society, an association formed for the purpose of bearing poor colored people, about 200 strong, followed next. These were followed by the citizens generally, nearly all with bouquets, which were also laid upon the graves. A New York Tribune correspondent that witnessed it that day said that it was quote, a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before. As the procession arrived to the cemetery, they were greeted by the famed 54th Massachusetts, 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who had performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite. James Redpath had organized this event, had gathered together African-American churches and community members to work at the cemetery and rebuild that cemetery and then put on this procession and put on this ceremony to remember these men. He especially recounted the next generation's role in the procession and ceremony that day. On May day, I told all the colored children of the free schools of Charleston to go out to the race course with bouquets of roses and other sweet-smelling flowers and throw them on the graves of our martyrs, Redpath wrote.

Nearly 3,000 children went out and perhaps double that number of grown-up people. The children marched from the race course singing the John Brown song and then silently and reverently and with heads uncovered, they entered the burial ground and covered the graves with flowers. Afterwards, they went to the fields nearby and sang the Star-Spangled Banner, America, and Rally Around the Flag. It was the first free May Day gathering they had ever enjoyed. Large numbers of them had been slaves until the Yankees came into Charleston and released them from their bondage.

And they love the Yankees. Charleston Daily News in their article of May 2nd, the day after this event, wrote that after the procession, the exercises on the ground commenced with a reading of a psalm, a singing of a hymn, and was followed by a prayer. Historian David Blight, who came across some remnants of this story in some research about 10 years ago, said that the official dedication ceremony was conducted by the ministers of all the black churches in Charleston. He continued by saying that after the dedication, the crowds gathered at the race course grandstand to hear some 30 speeches by union officers, local black ministers, and an abolitionist missionary.

They would all be chaired by none other than James Redpath. The crowd listened to these speakers of both races and picnicked on the grass nearby. When the day's procession and ceremony had ended, many recalled the transformation the once open-air prison grounds had undergone. On May 13th, 1865, the New York Tribune wrote the following article, when all had left the holy mounds, the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them were one mass of flowers.

Not a speck of earth could be seen, and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them outside and beyond, there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy. But a procession at a grave site that had 9,000 spectators was all but forgotten in two years. By 1871, just four years later, the cemetery was suffering from extreme neglect, and the soldiers were later reinterred at Beaufort and Florence National Cemeteries. With the removal of the dead from the race course to Florence and Beaufort and the number of years between the first decoration day and the present growing, the memory of the event and its significance faded drastically. The first decoration day had become the forgotten decoration day.

In the site of the Union Prison, the crafted cemetery, the founding of this American Day of Remembrance had taken on a new life without any form of reverence or remembrance. Today, you can visit what was once the grand Charleston race course, what was a prisoner of war camp for Union soldiers, and the grave site of those martyrs of the race course. Not long after the war, the race course ended its time as hosting all things horse racing. It was eventually turned into a park space and would be named in honor of Confederate General Wade Hampton, who had become the governor of South Carolina following the war. The city of Charleston would eventually purchase the property in the early 1900s, and just 30 years later, Charleston decided what a better way to honor the past and history of this place than by putting a zoo in the park. The zoo would operate until recent years and closed until 1975. And following the closure of the zoo and the park, blight set in.

And finally in the 1980s, Charleston decided to redevelop the park yet again and reopened it in 1984. And today, you'll find many cadets of the Citadel and local Charlestonians running, jogging, biking on the grounds that once housed a Union prisoner of war camp and the 257 martyrs of the race course. A new plaque, small in size, not prominent in location, was placed within the park just several years ago. The plaque outlines a brief history of the first Memorial Day in the United States, May 1st, 1865. It recalls the accounts of James Redpath, the conditions of the prisoner of war camp at the race course, the African American community coming together to rebury these Union soldiers that had died, creating a procession, a way to decorate and remember these men.

But what did it all mean? I would say perhaps it was a letter from Union Admiral J.A. Dahlgren, who was unable to attend that May 1st, 1865 ceremony and sent it to be read during the ceremony itself that defines the larger meaning of the moment, the cause, and the remembrance. The Charleston Daily News and their article of May 2nd, 1865, published the extent of that letter. We should never forget the gallant men who have laid down their lives for a great cause, but always keep their memory green.

And a terrific job on the editing, production and storytelling by our own Monty Montgomery. A special thanks to Dan Welch of the Gettysburg Foundation. And I've read countless, too many books to name on the Civil War. And these stories keep coming out, these remarkable, beautiful and tragic stories. Nine thousand mostly African American freed slaves honoring the Union dead, transforming a prisoner of war camp into something beautiful, only to have it fall into disrepair now in that park, just a small plaque. And that's why we tell these stories, to keep them alive. The story behind the story of the first Memorial Day.

It happened in Charleston, South Carolina, here on Our American Story. Hello, I'm Dr. Michael Mosley, and I want to let you know about my new immersive BBC Radio 4 podcast series, Deep Calm. It's all about how to tap into and activate a remarkable system that we all have hardwired inside of us, our relaxation response. And it's been developed to be listened to at any time you want to really unwind. I hope you'll listen wherever you get your BBC podcast.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-29 04:33:24 / 2024-05-29 04:44:39 / 11

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