Formerly known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was first enacted to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War. After World War I it was expanded to include the men and women of all wars who died while in the military service. It was officially proclaimed to be celebrated nationwide by General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), a Union veterans organization chartered by Congress, in his 11th General Order, and was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Over the years, G.A.R. posts were instrumental in the implementation of Memorial Day across the nation.
General Order No. 11:
"The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit."
The honor of having conceived and originated the custom was claimed by several parties. According to a newspaper article from the Trenton State Gazette, dated July 20, 1869, it was claimed to have been first observed on May 29, 1864, at Port Royal, Virginia (it being a transfer post for wounded soldiers), by the lady and other attendants of the hospital. The second place that claimed the honor was situated on the James River, in the rear of the Union Army, during the summer of 1864.
The third claim was that it was inaugurated on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina at the cemetery in rear of the race course rebel prison. This particular Memorial Day observance originated from a simple yet powerful gesture of gratitude, kindness and respect and was extraordinary in all respects. The ceremonies took place in the presence of an immense gathering which a New York Tribune correspondent described as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”
Robert Knox Sneden, Charleston S.C., A.D. 1864Library of Congress
During the Civil War, captured Union soldiers were held as prisoners at the Washington Race Course (now Hampton Park), in Charleston. Before the war, the track was home of the South Carolina Jockey Club and featured the finest horse racing in the South. After the fall of Atlanta in August 1864, the Confederates began evacuating prison camps such as Andersonville and moved their prisoners to safer locations, including South Carolina, to keep them out of the grasp of the Union Army. The first prisoners arrived in Charleston in September of 1864. The race course was an ideal location for a prison camp. The grounds were enclosed by a seven foot tall fence. Some officers were held in the Club House but the majority of the captured soldiers were kept in an outdoor camp. The already emaciated and sickly prisoners endured much suffering from these deplorable conditions during the last year of the war.
|Charleston Race Course Club House|
Library of Congress
Eliza McGuffin Potter, wife of Lorenzo Tucker Potter, a prominent Charleston business man who was a native of Rhode Island, spent days and nights in the hospitals caring for soldiers with her own hands and giving them words of comfort and cheer, despite being ordered to stay away. She brought them food, water, clothing, bedding and did their laundry. Occasionally, Eliza managed to buy fruit from Nassau smuggled through the Confederate blockade. She made a solemn promise to the soldiers that she would erect a fitting monument to their memory after the war was over so their sacrifices would not be forgotten.
|Eliza McGuffin Potter|
The Phrenological Journal, October 1868
When the Civil War broke out, the Potters stood firmly with the Union. Suddenly, they were seen as traitors and treated like outcasts by their former friends. Their seventeen year old son died from a savage beating by classmates who wanted him to surrender a Union flag. Despite harrowing personal sacrifices, the Potters remained in Charleston throughout the war and devoted their time and means in a most heroic manner, often risking their lives to serve the suffering. At the end of the war, their means were greatly exhausted. Despite the care and attention the prisoners received, the death rate in the open field at the Washington Race Course was frightful. At least 257 Union soldiers died here, mostly from disease and exposure, and were hastily buried in a mass grave without coffins.
One of the soldiers was twenty-one year old Lieutenant Chilton A. Osborne, Company B, 14th Kentucky Infantry. He was born near Blaine, Lawrence County, Kentucky, the son of Walter Osborne, a former Kentucky State Representative and Sarah “Sallie” Edwards. Chilton had no sympathy for Confederates who had robbed his parents of a considerable amount of property which caused financial ruin for the family. To make matters worse, Chilton Osborne was captured in 1863 and spent several months in Richmond. After his release he made it perfectly clear that he did not care for Jeff Davis’ brand of hospitality.
|Lieutenant Chilton Osborne|
14th Kentucky Infantry (US)
On June 22, 1864, Lieutenant Osborne, as the senior officer of his company, bravely led his men into battle at Kolb’s Farm, Georgia, against forces under General John Bell Hood. He was wounded, became separated from his men and was generally believed dead by his comrades. However, when a Confederate deserter from the 36th Georgia came into the lines of the 14th KY Infantry a month later, there was a sudden spark of hope that Osborne was still alive. The deserter reported that he had seen an officer during the Battle at Kolb’s Farm who matched Chilton Osborne’s description, “taken off and saw him in camp sitting up after he was taken in. He says the Ball struck him on the arm and ... hitting his side without breaking any Ribs or going inside but stunned him He says they sent him South to a hospital.” Upon hearing the news, “there was general rejoicing amongst the men and Officers of the regiment.” One of the officers noted, “God grant our hopes are true and Chilton alive.”
It is very likely that Lieutenant Osborne arrived at the Washington Race Course prison sometime in September 1864 with other prisoners from Andersonville. Unlike many others, he did not succumb to disease but died from a head wound on November 30, 1864. It is not known how long he may have suffered from his wounds or what the exact circumstances of his death were. He may have been the victim at the hands of a brutal prison guard or perhaps was injured by Union artillery bombarding the city. One can only hope that he was attended to by Eliza Potter who had extended so much kindness to Osborne's fellow prisoners and that his last moments were not spent alone.
When the Civil War finally came to a close in 1865, Charleston lay in ruins. Years of shelling had destroyed many buildings, and the once proud city was beyond recognition. In anticipation of the arrival of Sherman’s army, the Confederates evacuated the city. On February 18, 1865, the mayor surrendered to Union forces. By the end of the month, few residents remained, with the exception of thousands of former slaves who were slowly beginning to pick up the pieces of their lives.
|Ruins of the Circular Church and Secession Hall|
Charleston, South Carolina
Library of Congress
During the month of April, 1865, a group of 24 newly freed slaves, calling themselves “Friends of the Martyrs”, resolved to attend to the Union prisoners of war who had perished at the Washington Race Course in order to provide them with a decent burial. They were aided by members of the “Patriotic Association of Colored Men”, formed for the purpose of assisting in the distribution of freedman supplies in Charleston. Over the course of two weeks, the ground for a cemetery was laid out behind the grandstand which stood on the north side of the race course. The bodies were taken up and re-interred in individual graves which were then marked by wooden head-boards. Finally, the men constructed a ”fine substantial” wooden fence around this new cemetery, which was white washed. A sign over the arched entry bore the words “The Martyrs of the Race Course.” As work on the cemetery neared completion, members of the “Patriotic Association of Colored Men” formed a committee to plan an event to honor these Union martyrs. The date for the observance was set for May 1, 1865.
|1865 view of the Union soldiers graves at Washington Race Course|
Library of Congress
On the assigned date, nearly 10,000 people gathered at the Race Course to attend the ceremonies. The crowd consisted mainly of African-Americans – freed slaves, children, Union soldiers – who had made their way to the cemetery to pay their last respects to the Martyrs of the Race Course. According to an article in the May 2, 1865 edition of the Charleston Daily Courier, “The exercises on the ground commenced with reading a Psalm, singing a hymn, followed by a prayer. The procession was formed shortly after nine o’clock, and made a beautiful appearance, nearly every one present bearing a handsome bouquet of flowers. The colored children, about twenty-eight hundred in number marched first over the burial ground, strewing the graves with their flowers as they passed, as did the others in the procession. While standing at the graves, the school children sung, "The Star Spangled Banner," "America" and "Rally Round the Flag," and while marching, "John Brown's Body," &c. At the close of the procession the graves had the appearance of a mass of roses which was some two or three feet high. The children were followed by one hundred members of the “Patriotic Association of Colored Men” and two hundred of the “Mutual Aid Society.” Next were contingents of Union infantry and the citizens generally, black and white, including several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses.
After the procession, the crowd assembled within the enclosure of the cemetery. The children then joined in singing a number of national and patriotic airs, after which the speaking was commenced. More than 30 speakers addressed the attendees, including Colonel William Gurney (27th NY Infantry), post commander of Charleston, General Alfred S. Hartwell, Colonel James Chaplin Beecher (35th USCT), half-brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as James Redpath, who had been previously appointed Charleston’s General Superintendent of Education by federal military authorities. Other speakers were Rev. Mr. Lowe and a number of African-American community leaders such as Samuel Dickerson, D. R. Duncan, Vanderhorst, Magrath and Peter Miller.
|Colonel James Chapin Beecher, 35th USCT|
Library of Congress
Library of Congress
During the exercises, General Hartwell conducted a review of his brigade, consisting of the 54th Massachusetts and the 35th & 104th USCT. The soldiers marched four abreast around the graves and afterwards went through all the evolutions of the manual. Outside and behind the race course a picnic party was present with refreshments. At dusk, the crowds eventually dispersed, and returned to their homes.
|Officers of the 54th Massachusetts|
Library of Congress
It is sad to note that about one thousand white school children from Charleston elected not to attend the ceremonies at the race course. Instead, accompanied by their teachers, the children “joyously celebrated” the day by embarking at an early hour on board the steamer Gen. Hooker and paying a visit to Fort Sumter and other fortifications in the harbor.
Several years later, the Martyrs of the Race Course were exhumed again for proper military burial in South Carolina’s National Cemeteries at Beaufort and Florence. In 1870, Mrs. Potter fulfilled her promise to the soldiers and erected an obelisk at Beaufort National Cemetery in their memory. It reads, 'IMMORTALITY TO HUNDREDS OF THE DEFENDERS OF AMERICAN LIBERTY AGAINST THE GREAT REBELLION.' She also placed a marble tablet on a brick base, known as the Potter Monument, in section 64 of Beaufort National Cemetery on which are inscribed the names of 175 soldiers from nearly every state in the Union. Lieutenant Chilton A. Osborne’s name is erroneously noted as L. A. Osborne from NY. The individual burial sites of the soldiers are not identified by other than unknown markers.
The story of the first Memorial Day service was almost forgotten until Yale University historian David W. Blight published his research in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. The story of the Potters, who did so much to alleviate the suffering of the prisoners in the hospitals of Charleston during the Civil War, deserves to be recognized as well. The respect, selflessness and kindness shown to the prisoners of Charleston by these men, women and children should never be taken for granted. Their story deserves a permanent place in our collective memory.
Article compiled, researched and written by Marlitta H. Perkins, May 2016. Images are the author's property, unless noted otherwise. Unauthorized use and/or duplication, including images, without express written notice by the author is strictly prohibited.
© 2016. All Rights Reserved.
Further sources of interest
Article about the Martyrs of the Race Course
Noble Women of the War - The Story of Eliza Potter
(includes a complete listing of the 175 soldiers’ names inscribed on the Potter marble tablet)