Marrietta Cemetary

Marrietta Cemetary

Today is the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend, so I want to tell a story about the very first Memorial Day.   Now-a-days the last Monday of May is officially set aside to honor and remember those who died while serving in our country’s armed forces, but it wasn’t always so.

The first formal celebration of Memorial Day was held in Charleston, South Carolina.  Charleston is where the Civil War began in 1861 with the shelling of Fort Sumter.  Union forces tried repeatedly to capture the city, but the Rebel town resisted until the bitter end.  Confederate troops finally withdrew from Charleston on February 15, 1865 as General Sherman’s army approached.  Along with the Rebel soldiers, most of the white citizenry abandoned Charleston leaving newly freed slaves to welcome the conquering Yankee army.

In the last year of the war the town’s horse race track was converted into a Prisoner of War Camp, and captured Union soldiers were held in a harsh open air prison that had been the infield of the race track. In that one year 257 Union prisoners died from disease and exposure and their bodies were buried in one mass grave behind the race track’s grandstand.

After Charleston was surrendered the former slaves reinterred all of those dead Union soldiers into proper graves.  They built and whitewashed a picket fence around the new graveyard and added an archway at the entrance.  On that archway was painted the sign


Then a celebration was planned.

On May1, 1865 a parade stretched from town to the race track.  The parade was led by several thousand black children carrying armloads of flowers to place on the graves, they were followed by crowds of black men and women and then regiments of Union Infantry, both black and white.  The crowd paraded around the race track and then came to the new cemetery where the children placed their flowers.  To consecrate the ground five black preachers read from scripture as a children’s choir sang gospel songs.  The crowds then broke up and went to the infield of the race course where they held a very traditional Memorial Day picnic.

Three years later Major General John Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, officially set aside May 30 as a day to “decorate graves and remember comrades who died in defense of their country”.  Logan called it Decoration Day.

Over the years Decoration Day has come to be known as Memorial Day.