In the final months of the Civil War, approximately 268 Union soldiers died in an open-air prison in the infield of the lowcountry slaveholders’ horse-racing track, known then as the Washington Jockey Club. Charleston was not evacuated and occupied by federal forces until late February, 1865. In March and April of that spring, with most of Charleston in complete ruin from wartime bombardment, African Americans began to try to salvage their liberated lives, in part, by asserting their ownership of, and new meanings for, public spaces. At the race track, they found the mass graves of the Union dead who had been hastily buried behind the grandstand. Black workers reinterred all the bodies in individual mounds; around the graves they constructed a wooden fence, with an entrance covered with an arch. They white-washed the fence, and on the arch they wrote: “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Then on May 1, 1865, black Carolinians, almost all former slaves, joined by several units of Union soldiers, white and black, along with northern missionaries and abolitionist school teachers, held a solemn march, bearing armloads of flowers and singing “John Brown’s Body,” around the oval track of the race course. After their deliberate parade, as many as could fit gathered in the graveyard; five local black preachers read from scripture and a black childrens’ choir sang spirituals, the “Star Spangled Banner,” and “America the Beautiful.” Then they broke up into picnics, listened to speeches, and children chased each other and their dreams while the troops held maneuvers. African Americans, along with their Union army and abolitionist allies, had created the great American tradition of Decoration Day. And for them, they had declared the reality and meaning of their own emancipation; it was their new Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.
Later in the nineteenth century, after the Confederate Lost Cause tradition had solidified control over the public memory of the Civil War in Charleston, the old race course became Hampton Park, named for Wade Hampton, the former Confederate general and post-Reconstruction white-supremacist governor of South Carolina. The Union dead were eventually all removed and reinterred in the national cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina, their original gravesite obliterated along with the archway announcing their martyrdom. Hampton Park was re-landscaped and hosted fairs and exhibitions; today it sits prominently and beautifully adjacent to the Citadel, the state’s military academy founded out of the Confederate war effort and its memory.
On April 19, I was the first speaker after the Citadel Chamber Choir sang the Navy hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” The skies were gray and windy; thunderstorms threatened but did not visit our ceremony held before the mixed crowd, black and white. We had gathered near the site where the old grandstand stood a century and a half ago. I recounted how the first Decoration Day came to happen at that place, trying to get the audience to grasp some of the profound meanings that those who held it may have wanted to convey. I especially stressed that they were commemorating their own version of earthly and spiritual victory—the freedom of the slaves, the liberation of South Carolina from the Confederacy, and the triumph of the United States, the federal government, over the attempt to destroy it. My job was merely to be a historian telling the story.