Pilgrimages to Civil War battlefield sites and the creation of memorials to fallen soldiers began before the war was over, as men buried and mourned their comrades and women held informal rituals to remember lost loved ones. Most famously, Union dead at Gettysburg in 1863 were praised by President Abraham Lincoln for sacrificing their "last full measure of devotion" to the cause of freedom. As historian David Blight has written, "Death on such a scale demanded meaning."
In Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, Blight tells how the American tradition of Memorial Day originated after the Civil War in a variety of different celebrations. Digging into neglected records, he rediscovered an event that took place on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, that he says should be counted as one of the very first Memorial Day celebrations.
The ceremony was organized by Charleston's African-American community to dedicate a graveyard holding more than 200 Union soldiers who had died in a prison camp located at the city's horse racing track. The men were originally buried without coffins in an unmarked mass grave, as were so many soldiers. But as soon as the war ended, the black community began constructing a proper cemetery, with a fence and archway that read, "Martyrs of the Race Course."
An estimated 10,000 men, women, and children—most of them former slaves—attended the ceremonies, held less than a month after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House. Some 3,000 black children who were enrolled in Charleston's brand new freedmen's schools carried roses as they circled the graveyard. One reporter declared that "when all had left, the holy mounds—the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them—were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen." And the voices of the schoolchildren singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" drifted over the crowd. Local ministers and abolitionists delivered speeches, and the crowd enjoyed picnic lunches. Finally, a parade around the graves by Union soldiers, including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers and the 35th and 104th U.S. Colored Troops, rounded out a day of remembrance that demonstrated as eloquently as Lincoln's address at Gettysburg the meaning of the lives sacrificed.
The Union soldiers' bodies were later moved to another local cemetery, but in May 2002 a historical marker was placed at the site of the 1865 graveyard in Charleston's Hampton Park to honor both the soldiers and those who had paid tribute to them.