3 days ago
Thursday, May 1, 2014
1 May 1865, Charleston, South Carolina
“I might tell you a great deal about Charleston, but to-day I will speak of one incident only – the first celebration of May-day in free South Carolina. When our soldiers were made prisoners by the rebels they were carried to Belle Isle, near Richmond, or to Salisbury, in North Carolina, or to Andersonville, in Georgia, or to Charleston. . . . Here they were detained on what is called the Race Course. Charleston was once noted as the head-quarters of a jockey club, and many of the finest horses in the country were owned, and raised, and raced here. . . . Robust, healthy young men soon sickened under this [cruel imprisonment], and many of them died. Two hundred and fifty-seven of them were found dead, and were buried in an enclosed piece of pasture near by. . . .
Accompanied by a few friends, I went out one day and saw their graves; and on them the marks of the hoofs of cattle and horses and of the feet of men. Very sad we felt when we looked on these melancholy red mounds and on this wicked profanation of the resting-places of our martyrs. We all sat down and thought what we should do. We resolved to have a fence built around it, and, if we could raise the money, a monument erected to the memory of the soldiers who rested from their sufferings below. The general gave me liberty to pull down some rebel buildings not far off, and nearly thirty colored men volunteered to put up the fence, without any wages or reward. Very soon there was more than half an acre enclosed.
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. Nearly three thousand 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 near by and sang the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ ‘America,’ and ‘Rally Round the Flag.’
This is how the colored children spent May-day in Charleston. It was the first free May-day gathering they had ever enjoyed.”
Uncle James [James Redpath], “Eye and Ear Notes: May-Day in Charleston, S.C.,” The Youth’s Companion 38 (1 June 1865): 86.
“In the last autumn of the Civil War, in 1864, two hundred and forty-nine Union soldiers, prisoners of war, died while confined upon the race-course in Charleston, S. C., and were buried there in two rows of graves. In April, 1865, the war was over, and the flag was raised again on Fort Sumter with patriotic ceremonies, including an oration by Henry Ward Beecher, especially named for that service by President Lincoln. . . . James Redpath had recently been appointed superintendent of education in Charleston, and he suggested to Rear-Admiral Dahlgren, present as commander of the United States fleet, to come ashore May 1 and assist in the decoration of these soldiers’ graves, among which were some of the sailors in the United States navy. Other engagements kept Admiral Dahlgren from taking part in the ceremony, which was carried out by Mr. Redpath and a number of his teachers. . . . Among those who spoke on that first Memorial Day, besides Mr. Redpath, were Gens. Stewart L. Woodford, James Hartwell, and James C. Beecher, brother of Henry Ward Beecher. . . . The wives of several of these gentlemen were present, and Mrs. James C. Beecher directed the negro women who took part in the celebration.”
“Memorial-Day Texts and Suggestions,” The Homiletic Review 39 (May 1900): 431.