Charleston: A Review of Professor Blight’s Thesis

In his 2001 book Race and Reunion, David Blight reintroduced[1] the thesis that the Memorial Day holiday originated in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865.[2] Prior to 2012, Blight repeatedly claimed that the ex-slaves in Charleston “created” and “invented” the Memorial Day holiday “for themselves and for others.”[3] In Race and Reunion, Blight stated, “Black South Carolinians and their white Northern abolitionist allies were primarily responsible for the founding of Decoration Day.” In his lectures for Yale, Professor Blight said:

African-Americans invented Memorial Day, in Charleston, South Carolina. There are three or four cities in the United States, North and South, that claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day, but they all claim 1866; they were too late.[4]

In 2012, Professor Blight backtracked his thesis and the fact-checking institution known as “Snopes” has labeled his claim “mostly false.”[5]

Here is what actually happened. During mid-April of 1865, after Charleston had fallen to the Federal forces, former African-American slaves dug up the bodies of hastily buried dead Union prisoners who had been held there as prisoners and reinterred them in neat rows at an old horseracing track. On the first of May, long known as “May-Day,” a festival commenced as the culmination of several weeks of events to celebrate the fall of Charleston to the Union Army. This festival included parades, ceremonies and presentations around the city. A sign with the words “Martyrs of the Race Course” was erected over the burial place. Blight used to claim that this African-American May-Day festival and cemetery dedication is the origin of the current Memorial Day holiday in the United States.

To be sure, Blight’s account is appealing as a result of its inclusive quality. The story is a powerful one, certainly worthy of historical note. But even though the actions of the African-Americans who dedicated the cemetery in Charleston are commendable and worthy of attention, a sober analysis of the evidence prevents an impartial historian from concluding that what they did there in May of 1865 was the pad from which an annual Memorial Day observance throughout the United States was launched. While Blight’s inclusive impulse was admirable, he overreached the evidence in his conclusions. According to Blight, African-Americans deserved credit for “founding” the Memorial Day holiday in the United States.[6]

However, when Blight was requested by a New York Times reporter in the spring of 2012 to provide evidence that what happened in Charleston in 1865 had any influence on the decision of General John Logan to inaugurate the annual national holiday, Professor Blight conceded that he has no such evidence.[7] That is because the participants in the Charleston observance on May 1, 1865, actually did not inaugurate a new annual tradition nor ever intended to. What they did in Charleston was dedicate a new cemetery, a one-time ceremony.

The dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg in November of 1863 was quite similar to the Charleston cemetery dedication in 1865. Should that make the Gettysburg dedication the true origin of Memorial Day?[8] On June 15, 1864, nearly a year before the Charleston event, a day was set aside in New York for memorializing all “who, during the present war, shall have been killed, or died of wounds received in the field.” The ceremonies of that day included a large procession, speeches, bands, and singing of patriotic songs.[9] Two weeks later the ladies of Springfield, Massachusetts, put on a picnic with bands, wreaths, and an oration, under the banner of the “memory of the fallen brave.”[10] Lincoln took part in another soldiers’ cemetery dedication in July of 1864.[11] A cemetery dedication ceremony took place in October of 1864 in Baltimore that included a procession of “a large concourse of people,” speeches, and decorations of wreaths.[12] In 1869, when someone first tried to claim that Charleston, South Carolina, was the birthplace of Memorial Day, a New York paper refuted the claim by showing that there was a cemetery dedication that occurred in Port Royal, Virginia, in May of 1864 that had all the same elements of the Charleston event.[13] All cemetery dedications are, by nature, one-time events. They are not intended as the beginning of an annual observance.

Prior to 1866 there were an abundance of isolated day-long events which commemorated war dead. Many of these were extensions of already well-established floral decoration customs combined with other well-established holiday celebrations. The strewing of flowers on soldiers’ graves in Savannah in 1862, the dedication of the cemetery in Gettysburg in 1863, the memorial program in New York in June 1864, and a July 4, 1864 grave decoration in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania all include all the elements that Blight said characterize the Memorial Day holiday, but each predates the Charleston event. Yet none of these events were designed to initiate a new annual tradition. If the dedication of a new cemetery can be considered a candidate for the first Memorial Day, Professor Blight would have to concede that the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg on the day of Lincoln’s famous address in November 1863 was prior to the Charleston cemetery dedication.[14] There were numerous dedications of new cemeteries during this period, but none of those cemetery dedications constituted the inauguration of a new annual holiday.

Blight’s 2012 admission that there is no link between the 1865 Charleston cemetery dedication and the Memorial Day holiday we presently observe leaves no question as to whether Charleston was where the present day holiday began.[15]



[1] Contrary to Blight’s claim, this thesis was not lost to history until he rediscovered it in a library at Harvard in 1991. Published sources before Blight’s that advocated this thesis include: Charles Cowley, Leaves from a Lawyer’s Life Afloat and Ashore (1879); Hill’s Album of Biography and Art (1891), 369; The Homiletic Review (1900) Vol. 39, 431; Granville Priest, History of the New Hampshire Surgeons in the War of Rebellion (Conn, 1906); Lyceumite and Talent (Feb. 1908), 14; American Legion Magazine (Vol. 27-28, 1939); The New Yorker Magazine (1952) Vol. 28, Part 3; Culture Under Canvas the Story of Tent Chautauqua (1978); The Folklore of American Holidays (1991), 215.

[2] David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard University Press, 2001), 65; Blight, Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory, and the American Civil War (University of Massachusetts, 2002), 187; Blight, “Decoration Days,” 94-129.

[3] David Blight, “Traced by Blood,” in In the Cause of Liberty: How the Civil War Redefined American Ideals, William Cooper and John McCardell, eds. (Louisiana State University Press, 2009), 153.

[4] David Blight, Open Yale Course, History 119, Lecture 19 – “To Appomattox and Beyond: The End of the War and a Search for Meanings” (Yale University, 2012).

[5] (accessed March 17, 2017).

[6] Blight, Race and Reunion, 69.

[7] David Blight, quoted in the New York Times, “Birthplace of Memorial Day,” May 27, 2012, p. A20.

[8] A claim was made in 1913 that, in fact, Lincoln was the father of Memorial Day, which Lincoln gave birth to at Gettysburg. “Lincoln’s Message to Today,” Trenton Evening Times, May 30, 1915.

[9] Battle Monument (New York: Sheldon & Co, 1864), 4.

[10] “Return of the 10th Mass. Regiment,” Pittsfield [MA] Sun, June 30, 1864.

[11] Federal Writers Project, Washington D.C.: A Guide to the Nation’s Capital (1937), 613.

[12] Baltimore Sun, October 24, 1864.

[13] New York Commercial Advertiser, May 31, 1869.

[14] Granted, people in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, do honor November 19 as a special day there, especially insofar as it is the anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But this observance is localized; it is not a national holiday.

[15] Blight, quoted in the New York Times, “Birthplace of Memorial Day,” May 27, 2012, p. A20.