Another “First” for Charleston…The First “Memorial” Day was Held Here


Dear Reader:

As a former South Carolina History teacher…it was always fun to teach students about all the “firsts” that happened in Charleston. Charleston has always been known for many first events in our country’s history… mostly good “firsts” but others…well, not so good. But when I discovered this story, long forgotten in the archives of time, it made me proud that Charleston has finally been recognized as the birthplace of the first “Memorial Day” remembrance.

For an extended period of time Memorial Day was called “Decoration Day” because the graves of soldiers who died in war were decorated with ribbons and flags. Several years ago, a Yale history professor, David Blight, made a significant discovery in both our state and national history. Charleston freedmen, on May 1, 1865, decided to honor the Union Soldiers who had died at a POW prison camp where Hampton Park is today with scripture, ceremony, parades and later in the day picnics.

Instead of leaving the Union soldiers interred in one large massive grave…ex-slaves, freedmen, dug graves for all the soldiers who had helped free the slaves. There were parades, crowds of men and women, along with school children singing “John Brown’s Body.” Even the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment marched in the parade. (book and movie Glory)

Yale University historian David Blight places the first Memorial Day in April 1865, when a group of former slaves gathered at a Charleston, S.C., horse track turned Confederate prison where more than 250 Union soldiers had died. Digging up the soldiers’ mass grave, they interred the bodies in individual graves, built a 100-yd. fence around them and erected an archway over the entrance bearing the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

(Picture – Once prison to over 250 Union soldiers who died in what is today Hampton Park in Charleston, SC)

On May 1, 1865, some 10,000 black Charleston residents, white missionaries, teachers, schoolchildren and Union troops marched around the Planters’ Race Course, singing and carrying armfuls of flowers of different varietieis. Gathering in the graveyard, the crowd watched five black preachers recite scripture and a children’s choir sing spirituals and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” While the story is largely forgotten today, some historians consider this gathering the first Memorial Day.


Just a few years ago, on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in Charleston, David Blight and then mayor, Joe Riley, Jr. put up a commemorative marker designating the part of the original cemetery (the bodies are now interred in Beaufort National Cemetery) for the site of the marker.

This year another (improved) marker will be erected to recognize the first Memorial Day Remembrance by the freedmen and their families dating back to May 1, 1865.


The City of Charleston will commemorate Decoration Day and unveil a historical marker Saturday at Hampton Park.

Mayor John Tecklenburg and History Commission member and Virginia College history professor Damon Fordham are expected to speak at the event. Hampton Park is where Decoration Day was first observed in Charleston on May 1, 1865.

The event will include the unveiling of “an improved historical marker,” according to Charleston city spokesman Jack O’Toole.

At the first Decoration Day, early 10,000 former slaves marched onto the grounds of the Washington Race Course, where a prison camp had been established, to honor the lives of hundreds of Union soldiers who had died there during the Civil War.

Some believe that Decoration Day was the inspiration for the Memorial Day national holiday. Memorial Day falls on May 28.

One historian later stated that the tragedy in that first Charleston commemoration was the fact that due to unhealthy conditions in Charleston following the Civil War….thousands of its citizens, black and white, succumbed to disease as new victims of the war…including many of the freedmen who participated in the first Memorial Day remembrance.

In the recognition of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, let us not forget that freed slaves created Memorial Day. Let us remember that their prayers and observations were not just for the deceased Union soldiers on that first Memorial Day, but also for members of their families and their community who died in a war that was meant to free them

So until tomorrow…Let us never forget the tragic high cost of war and the ultimate sacrifices so many Americans have made throughout so many (too many) wars in our country’s history. Stay safe and dry on this special holiday!

“Today is my favorite day”  Winnie the Pooh







To everyone’s surprise when we woke up Sunday morning…it wasn’t pouring and it stayed dry until about five o’clock. The Turner cook-out stayed “on go” …swimming in the pool is fine with a little rain…you’re wet anyway. I went over early to visit Eva Cate and Jakie before leaving to keep Eloise as Mollie took Rutledge and Lachlan to the Footlight Players children production of Shrek…the Musical. Then we all went back over to John and Mandy’s…John cooked out with an umbrella over his head…but got it done and the pool party/cookout was a huge success.

Eloise does make me laugh…she is the happiest baby I have ever seen…if she puckers up she is either hungry or tired…the rest of the time she has a big old belly laugh!

The children’s performance was at the Footlight Players Theatre on Queen Street…a wonderful old theatre filled with lots of stories to tell.

*The two pictures below ought to be an advertisement for Toy Story…it was on and everyone posing for the picture (except (Mollie) turned to look at Woody on Toy Story…even Eloise!

Eva Cate started dancing for Eloise and she got so tickled…she let out her belly laugh loud and clear.

These pictures sum up why I pray for all those brave men and women who gave their greatest sacrifice…life…so the rest of us can live our daily lives in peace…and celebrate Memorial Day with loved ones in a country like no other!

About Becky Dingle

I was born a Tarheel but ended up a Sandlapper. My grandparents were cotton farmers in Laurens, South Carolina and it was in my grandmother’s house that my love of storytelling began beside an old Franklin stove. When I graduated from Laurens High School, I attended Erskine College (Due West of what?) and would later get my Masters Degree in Education/Social Studies from Charleston Southern. I am presently an adjunct professor/clinical supervisor at CSU and have also taught at the College of Charleston. For 28 years I taught Social Studies through storytelling. My philosophy matched Rudyard Kipling’s quote: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Today I still spread this message through workshops and presentations throughout the state. The secret of success in teaching social studies is always in the story. I want to keep learning and being surprised by life…it is the greatest teacher. Like Kermit said, “When you’re green you grow, when you’re ripe you rot.”
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8 Responses to Another “First” for Charleston…The First “Memorial” Day was Held Here

  1. Johnny Johnson says:

    I enjoy all of your blogs, or stories, but especially the historical writings. I never knew about Charleston being the birth place of Memorial Day. I love History anyway and this blog was great to me, I learned something new already today.


    • Becky Dingle says:

      Johnny! I am so excited to hear from you! It has been a long time! Just so happy you are still reading the blogs. This has made my Memorial day. I happened upon this story by hearing Leigh Handal, local historian/tour guide…and then got so excited I started researching the topic on my own. It felt like the good old days when taking graduate courses and researching topics of interest back then. There is nothing more enticing for me.


  2. Sis Kinney says:

    Good Monday (Memorial Day) morning, Becky,
    I, too, didn’t know about Charleston being the birthplace of Memorial Day!! Tidbits that surely have been forgotten. But, I realize that you are the best when it comes to reciting historical facts, so I trust you’ll ever keep us posted, especially with regard to historical events concerning Charleston or dear ol’ Summerville!
    Loved the pictures of the grandchildren – especially that sweet Eloise! She reminds me SO much of my own daughter (Natalie) when she was that age: “bald” but beautiful, ALWAYS smiling, and laughing, with a twinkle in her eyes!! Ah, they grow up way too fast!
    Enjoy your Memorial Day and I look forward to tomorrow’s blog post!


    • Becky Dingle says:

      I get still get so excited too when I discover a gem of a story that I never knew about history…especially local history.! Once I start researching something I go into my own little zone of happiness. Enjoy your Memorial Day…hope it is not as soggy as ours…but really the rains here today have again been off and on…not torrential or continual…so we are lucky!


  3. Kathy Worthington says:

    Once a teacher, always a teacher!! How wonderful that you share these gems with us – I would never have known this!


    • Becky Dingle says:

      I was fortunate to hear the wonderful Leigh Handal (tourist guide/historian) and discovered this wonderful story which made me start doing some research of my own.


  4. Thanks for a wonderful history lesson. I lived in Macomb, Illinois for a year, teaching at Western Illinois University. For the first two weeks we were there, I saw no other black person in this small town. One day crossing the park from the local library (I always find the library first week in a new town), I hear music and see a crowd of blacks. I started running towards them, and Douglas, alarmed was yelling, “What’s wrong?” I screamed as I doubled my speed, “Black people!” It was the annual Juneteenth celebration, and I was ashamed that I had earned a PhD and had never been taught anything about this holiday or knew anyone who celebrated Juneteenth. It is so wonderful to read this history today.


    • Becky Dingle says:

      I am glad you reminded me of the Juneteenth Celebration…I, too, never heard of it until late in my teaching career…what a powerful way to become a part of it. I am so glad I could find this wonderful story in Charleston’s archives.


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