Ceremony honored dead Union soldiers
BY JASON HARDIN
Of The Post and Courier Staff
During the days of joy and despair that followed the South's defeat in the Civil War, former slaves staged an event that had to be seared in the memory of all those who attended or even heard about it - but that, paradoxically, is all but forgotten today.
The occasion was, on one level, a ceremony to pay respect to hundreds of Union soldiers who died in the terrible conditions of a prison camp at Hampton Park. The affair drew thousands of freed slaves, who came to honor the dead during an elaborate ceremony on May 1, 1865, that included singing, prayer and fiery speeches.
The event was one of the country's first, if not the first, observation of what is now known as Memorial Day.
However, that fact - and the celebration itself - was long ago washed away from the popular memory in Charleston. But the spirit of that day 137 years ago is set to return to Hampton Park. A group consisting of local colleges, the city of Charleston and others is planning to re-enact the celebration this Saturday.
It's time, those involved say, to revisit one of the most notable events in the city's long history.
"I think it's a reminder of the interesting problem of how some stories get richly remembered, and some stories vanish. And we have to ask why," said David Blight, an Amherst College history professor who has written about the May 1, 1865 event.
Blight and other historians say there are some pretty obvious reasons why the event - which wasn't repeated - failed to catch on in the Lowcountry.
"In Charleston, it would not have been talked about and handed down by word of mouth because it was an event that unfolded by and large in the black community, and it honored Union soldiers," said Bernard Powers, a history professor at the College of Charleston.
The few whites in the city at the time - most had evacuated in the waning days of the war - likely looked on with horror, Blight said.
"No doubt they would have seen the event with a combination of disdain and remorse. They were experiencing total defeat and loss," he said. "It was precisely the kind of event that they wanted to wash away. That's what historical memory is all about. It's the way memories of the past go on competing to control the present."
Powers said he hasn't been able to find a mention of the event in the Charleston news media of the day, although it drew mention in newspapers as far away as New York.
It didn't take long for Memorial Day to catch on nationally. Union veterans organized observations beginning a few years after, and by the 1880s, most Northern states had an official Memorial Day holiday.
In the South, Confederate Memorial days proliferated, although different states used different dates to mark the occasion.
It wasn't until World War I that Memorial Day became a more unified holiday, observed by both North and South, Blight said.
Powers said that enough time has passed that the remembrance will not be a divisive event.
"Certainly, given the amount of patriotism that has settled on the country in the wake of 9/11, this is an opportunity to revisit what was essentially an act of great kindness, reverence and respect for people that had lost their lives in combat."
This weekend's events begin with an academic conference at The Citadel and culminate in a re-enactment at Hampton Park.
Catherine Clinton, a history professor at The Citadel who is helping organize the event, said it will include impersonators of key figures from the 1865 celebration, including some from the famous black 54th Massachusetts Regiment.
She said many people have embraced the concept of the re-enactment, which could be turned into an annual affair.
"I'm really pleased by what I see as the genuine awareness of all the many pasts that Charleston has had," she said. "There are layers and layers of pasts. I think it's a perfect place to continue a tradition of having all histories celebrated."