Hampton Park in Charleston, South Carolina, is a beautiful place to walk or just sit and enjoy the many flowers, trees and the fountain. When we spent a few months in Charleston during the winter of 2016 we walked almost every day in the park. At 60 acres, there are plenty of walkways. Just six months out from a knee replacement surgery, I found it a great way to get some exercise to build up my physical strength, but also a wonderful place to just sit and reflect on God’s creation.
But the park is also full of history.
Originally part of a plantation owned by John Gibbes, the portion that is now Hampton Park was purchased by the South Carolina Jockey Club and a race course was built. Named the Washington Race Course, the one-mile loop is now a roadway that runs around the park. Featuring some of the best horse racing in the South, it became the social event of the year during Race Week held every February.
During the Civil War it became a camp for Union prisoners of war. At least 257 Union soldiers died at this location. Facing disease and the advance of the Union Army, Confederate guards hastily buried the dead in an unmarked mass grave. Most white residents abandoned the city and it was ironic that the first troops to enter and march up Meeting Street was the 21st U.S. Colored Infantry.
Days later, free black residents and former slaves walked to the mass grave and reburied the Union soldiers in proper graves. Erecting a marker and a small fence around the burial ground they built a memorial arch which read: “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
On May 1, 1865, black Charlestonians, many former slaves, along with white missionaries and teachers and Union soldiers staged a parade to the race course. They laid flowers on the graves, listened to speakers of both races, and picnicked on the grass.
This celebration has been called by many America’s first Memorial Day. After the war, as the cemetery suffered neglect, the soldiers’ bodies were again exhumed and buried in 1871 in South Carolina’s national cemeteries at Beaufort and Florence.
Interesting that this celebration conducted by former slaves honoring the Union soldiers who died for their freedom has been buried in history and credit for this day of remembrance goes to others.
I would never have known of this Memorial Day celebration had we not walked in that park so full of history
And there’s more history there – but that calls for another blog.