April 1865 was not Charleston’s finest moment.
By the time word reached the city that the Civil War had ended, the fighting had been over here for nearly two months.
For four years, Charleston had suffered through the horrors of the War Between the States — a conflict that started at Fort Sumter. Since that first shot, the city had suffered more than 500 days of siege and shelling. A fire had destroyed much of downtown, and some of the rest had been burned by retreating Confederates.
Most of the few remaining white residents followed the Southern troops out in February, leaving a city populated mostly by former slaves, free blacks and Union troops.
It was a time to pick up the pieces. Black workmen trying to clean up the mess eventually made their way to the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club at Hampton Park. The track, where wealthy planters had once raced their horses, had been converted to a prisoner of war camp, and more than 250 Northern soldiers had died there.
Those soldiers had been buried in one mass grave, and the workers sifted through all that death and gave the men proper burials. On May 1, 10,000 people — most of them black — led a parade and held a ceremony for the war’s dead, an event that Yale historian David Blight calls the first Memorial Day.
April 1865 was a time for racial healing, and 150 years later we still need it.
Today at 3 p.m., the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust will host a memorial service for the Civil War dead at Hampton Park. The Citadel Chaplain Joel Harris will officiate, with remarks from Blight.
The war claimed more than 620,000 lives, although some estimate the number is really as high as 850,000. Even the lower number is more than we lost in World Wars I and II and Korea combined.
In all, 2 percent of the United States’ population at the time died over what Southern states called a fight for states’ rights. The predominant right these states were fighting to preserve was their ability to own other people.
The Rev. Joseph Darby, who had been scheduled to co-officiate at today’s ceremony, says the war’s end was a time to ask “What do we do now? We can’t bring back the dead. What do we do now to end the Civil War?”
The nation’s answer in 1865 was Reconstruction, a trying time that largely did not work in Charleston, or anywhere. The South fought reconciliation and Reconstruction with Jim Crow laws, segregation and oppression. On some scale, it’s still here.
“Racial strife and inequality are the residues of that time,” Darby says.
As Darby says, racism was born of a country trying to justify slavery. Politicians claimed that African-Americans were “not people like us,” so they did not have to face the fact that they oppressed an entire race of people. Poor whites were kept from discovering their common interests with slaves by men who told them that black people were inherently dangerous.
The states’ rights battle cry was created so that Southern soldiers — most of them poor or middle class, almost none of them slave owners — would not realize they were basically fighting to preserve a luxury for a wealthy few.
After the war, those prejudices did not die. They still infect this country today.
Chaplain Harris says he is honored to officiate over today’s memorial service because of the one held in the same spot 150 years ago.
“That was really an act of reconciliation, and as I see it, the church is supposed to be actively involved in reconciliation,” Harris says.
Harris also sees reminders of the nation’s most divisive conflict in today’s headlines, and that’s why this is also so important — to remind everyone of our shared history.
He is absolutely correct. The protests in North Charleston over the past two weeks have been about more than the death of Walter Scott, although that was reason enough. In Scott’s death, many people see the lingering effects of centuries of misinformation and prejudices originally created to perpetuate an unholy institution.
As a result of the Civil War, the wealthy planters of Charleston lost their racetrack to a prison camp and, later, a burial ground. They also lost their profitable and comfortable way of life for trying to hold on to slavery for a little longer.
The rest of the nation, the rest of this country’s people, lost much more. Many people are still paying for our troubled past.
It is important to never forget that.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org