You don’t read much about it in the standard-issue history books, but the first Memorial Day service in America took place in Hampton Park. Yes, that’s OUR Hampton Park, right here in Charleston. That historic moment will be celebrated at 3:00 p.m., May 31, at the bandstand in Hampton Park, with Mayor Joe Riley, Massachusetts 54th Regiment reenactors, a brass band, and children’s choir. A plaque will be installed to commermorate this occasion.
Parking will be available and park staff will direct you to the overflow parking area. You enter the park off Rutledge Avenue, on Cleveland Street, in the area of the Citadel.
The First Memorial Day in America took place only three weeks after the end of the Civil War at Appomattox. Confederate Memorial Day and Decoration Day followed in other parts of the country, but this event in Charleston was the first. Ten thousand people participated, in an era without telephones and email.
In what is now Hampton Park, there was a graveyard of over 250 Union soldiers who died between the fall of 1864 and mid-February 1865, in a Confederate prison located in the center of a famous race track. The soldiers who died there were originally buried in common, unmarked graves. Between the end of the war and May 1, several African American churches and others re-interred those bodies in a small picket-fenced cemetery named the Graveyard of the Martyrs. Later, these soldiers were buried in national cemeteries at Beaufort or Florence or buried in their home communities.