During the final year of the Civil War, Confederate soldiers converted a horse-racing track into a makeshift prisoner of war camp. With the Confederacy unable to properly feed or clothe many of its own troops in the final year of the war, the death rate among Union prisoners was astounding. 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. Few white Southerners remained in the city when Confederate forces surrendered Charleston to the commander of an African American regiment. Days later, free black residents and former slaves walked to the mass grave, exhumed the bodies, and reburied the Union soldiers in proper graves. They also erected markers and a small fence around the burial ground, marked by a memorial arch bearing the words Martyrs of the Race Course.
On May 1, 1865, an estimated crowd of ten thousand people--mostly Southerners who had lived under the lash of chattel slavery, held a solemn procession to the cemetery they had built. Together with Union troops, the former slaves decorated the graves with flowers and markers and listened to speeches honoring their sacrifice. Historian David Blight believes that this memorial service and celebration marked the first observance of Decoration Day, a national holiday that is now known as Memorial Day.
By the 1870s, this holiday, created by a Union veteran group to honor Union veterans, had expanded from the North to all parts of the nation. Northerners and Southerners celebrated the day differently, but by the turn of the century, the holiday became less about remembering veterans of the Civil War and more about honoring veterans of all conflicts, After the second World War, Decoration Day was nearly always referred to as Memorial Day-a name change that connotes the recognition of veterans of multiple conflicts.