The First Memorial Day: May 1, 1865, reported in the Charleston Daily Courier

Ruins of Charleston SC after the civil war

IMPORTANT IN THE RESEARCH of Yale historian David Blight were newspapers from the 1860s. The following story comes from the Charleston Daily Courier, a popular daily in South Carolina at the time. (It later merged in 1873 with another newspaper.) In its heyday, the Daily Courier had a reputation for innovation and diversity perhaps partly because it was founded by a northerner in 1803: Aaron Smith Willington, a newspaperman from Massachusetts. The newspaper carried overseas news, gathered by staffers who rowed out to meet arriving ships. The staff also included a Spanish translator to cover news from Cuba, Mexico and South America.


 1865 April Library of Congress photo Charleston SC site of Union burials     In the May 1865, the newspaper covered what Blight argues should be credited as the nation’s first memorial day observance, held on May 1, 1865. At that time, Charleston was largely in ruins and families were eager to rebuild their lives and their city. The photos on this page are Library of Congress images from the era. Two simply show scenes of wartime devastation in the city. But the photo at right here appears to show the land where the former Confederate prison camp stood (also the site of a pre-Civil War Race Course). The photo appears to show work beginning on raising the remains in April 1865 in preparation for the new cemetery that eventually would include a wall, an archway entrance and properly buried remains.

The Daily Courier coverage of that first memorial day, May 1, 1865, was headlined …

The Martyrs of the Race Course

CHARLESTON, South Carolina—The ceremonies of the dedication of the ground where are buried two hundred and fifty-seven Union soldiers, took place in the presence of an immense gathering yesterday. Fully ten thousand persons were present, mostly of the colored population.
The ground had been previously laid out, the mounds of the graves newly raised, and a fine substantial fence erected around the enclosure by twenty-four colored men, “Friends of the Martyrs,” and members of the “Patriotic Association of Colored Men.” The exercises on the ground commenced with reading a Psalm, singing a hymn, followed by a prayer. The procession was formed shortly after nine o’clock, and made a beautiful appearance, nearly every one present bearing a handsome boquet of flowers. The colored children, about twenty-eight hundred in number, marched first over the burial ground, strewing the graves with their flowers as the passed.
Ruins of Charleston SC after civil war     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 one hundred members. “The Mutual Aid Society,” an association formed for the purpose of burying poor colored people, about two hundred strong followed next. These were followed by the citizens generally, nearly all with boquets, which were also laid upon the graves. While standing around the graves the school children sung, “The Star Spangled Banner,” “America” and “Rally Rund the Flag,” and while marching, “John Brown’s Body, &c.” The graves at the close of the procession had all the appearance of a mass of roses. Among those present at the speaker’s stand inside the enclosure, were General Hartwell, Colonel Gurney, Colonel Beecher, Rev. Mr. Lowe, Mr. James Redpath and others.

The following letter from Admiral Dahlgren was received:
    Charleston, My 1st, 1865.
Mr. James Redpath, General Superintendent of Education, &c:
Dear Sir—I am much obliged by the invitation to be present at the dedication of the ground for the interment of Union soldiers, but regret the demands of my time will prevent particularly as I expect my mail steamer to-day.
The object must have the best wishes of every lover of his country. We should never forget the gallant men who have laid down their lives for a great cause, but always keep their memory green.
I am, very truly, yours,
J.A. DAHLGREN, Rear Admiral

    On the assembling of those within the enclosure around the speaker’s stand, Mr. James Redpath briefly announced the object of the gathering and the occasion.
    The assemblage was afterwards addressed by General Hartwell, Col. Beecher, Rev. Mr. Lowe, and several colored speakers, including Samuel Dickerson, Vanderhorst, Dart R. Duncan, Peter Miller, Magrath and others, about thirty in all.
During the exercises General Hartwell’s brigade, consisting of the 54th Massachusetts, 104th and 85th, colored regiments, appeared on the ground, and were reviewed by General Hartwell. They marched four abreast around the graves and afterwards went through all the evolutions of the manual.
Outside and behind the Race Course a picnic party was present with refreshments.
The crowds dispersed, and returned to their homes about dusk.

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