At least two dozen American cities claim to have celebrated the nation’s first Memorial Day. In an effort to settle the matter, in 1966 President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., to be the holiday’s official birthplace, referencing a ceremony that took place there on May 5, 1866.

Those of us in Charleston of course know better: the real first Memorial Day was celebrated May 1, 1865 right here in Hampton Park.

On any given day, cyclists, joggers and dog walkers enjoy taking laps around the roughly one-mile loop that encircles the park, which was once the legendary Washington Race Course. Today we know it as Mary Murray Boulevard. Yet the history behind this beautiful city park is filled not only with spring blooms, outdoor weddings and family picnics, but also with war, inhumanity and death.
The horse races took a hiatus during the Civil War, and the track was repurposed as a prison camp for Union soldiers. The heat, disease and filthy conditions in the mostly open-air camp were horrendous; 257 soldiers’ deaths were recorded, and surely there were many others. Prisoners died so quickly and in such great numbers that their Confederate captors could not keep up with the burials. Bodies were unceremoniously rolled into large ditches and covered over in mass unmarked graves.

Soon after Charleston fell to Union troops in February 1865, newly emancipated Black men from several local church congregations went to the racetrack where over the course of several weeks they exhumed the mass burial ditches and, this time with respect and honor, reburied in individual graves the Union soldiers. Afterward they erected a fence around the site and over the track’s main entrance gates added an overthrow banner that read “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Upon completing this mammoth task, on May 1, 1865, 10,000 African Americans marched in a parade from their downtown churches to the racecourse. Women spread out blankets and served a massive collective picnic for participants. Military units paraded, politicians spoke and children spread flower petals among the graves.

In 1871, the soldiers’ bodies were again exhumed and reburied for a third time at military cemeteries in Florence and Beaufort.

In 1875, the South Carolina Jockey Club tried to revive the glory days of horse racing at the Washington Race Course. But breeding racehorses is a rich man’s sport, and few wealthy men were left in Charleston after the war. The effort failed. In 1899, the S.C. Jockey Club disbanded and donated the racetrack to the Charleston Library Society.

Following the 1902 demolition of the South Carolina and West Indian Exposition, which briefly occupied the site, the city of Charleston purchased the racecourse to redevelop it as a municipal park. The four stone pillars that had once honored the “Martyrs of the Racecourse” were listed as surplus property. In 1903, August Belmont Jr., a New York racehorse owner and part-time South Carolina resident, asked to buy them. Instead, the city simply gave them to him.

The pillars were shipped to Long Island where they were installed at the new Belmont Park. Since the New York track’s opening day on May 4, 1906, almost 41 years to the day after Charleston freedmen had held their memorial celebration at Hampton Park, millions of people have passed through them at their new location on the Hempstead Turnpike, with very few ever knowing their history.

If you have a moment on this annual day of remembrance, you may want to visit the historic marker found at the north end of Mary Murray Boulevard, recalling Hampton Park’s history as the site of America’s first Memorial Day celebration — presidential proclamations to the contrary notwithstanding.

The original Washington Race Course pillars now at Belmont Park.
The graves of Union soldiers buried by newly emancipated slaves at the Washington Race Course.
The Ladies Grandstand was converted into a prison holding Union officers.
This article has been adapted from Leigh's "Do You Know Your Lowcountry?" column in the Post and Courier, May 29, 2023.
You may also read further on this topic in Storied and Scandalous Charleston.