The real history of Memorial Day (plus 9 ways to celebrate it in NC)

The Union cemetery at Washington Race Course in Charleston, S.C. Recent research suggests a celebration held here by formerly enslaved people in 1868 might have been the first Memorial Day. (Photo via Library of Congress)

By Ryan Pitkin

May 24, 2024

The history of Memorial Day might have begun in the Carolinas. Celebrate it with one of these 9 events from the NC mountains to the coast.

It’s a little-known fact, but the Carolinas have a special claim to Memorial Day. Though not uncovered until the 1990s, it’s believed that the first observance of Memorial Day in the country’s history occurred here, held at the since-razed Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, S.C.

What’s more, it was reportedly held by recently freed Black residents who wanted to memorialize the Union soldiers who died while fighting for their freedom.

According to research from David Blight, a professor of American History at Yale University who uncovered two newspaper reports and a handwritten narrative that corroborated them in storage at Harvard’s Houghton Library in 1996, the “First Decoration Day” came on May 1, 1865.

The parade occurred after Black residents emancipated from slavery exhumed a mass grave containing the remains of around 260 Union soldiers who had died at the race track, which had been turned into a prison camp by the Confederacy.

After giving each soldier a proper burial, according to the two reports that Blight found in The New York Tribune and The Charleston Courier, a crowd of 10,000 people, mostly freed enslaved people with some white missionaries, staged a parade around the race track.

About 3,000 Black schoolchildren carried bouquets of flowers and sang “John Brown’s Body” while members of the famed 54th Massachusetts and other Black Union regiments performed double-time marches and Black ministers recited verses from the Bible.

Three years later, the first official observance of Decoration Day was held on May 30, 1868, when John A. Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed it to honor Union soldiers who died in the Civil War.

In the time since, it has evolved into Memorial Day, designated as the last Monday of May each year as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1971.

Folks recognize Memorial Day in a number of ways, so we’ve compiled nine different ways of doing so in the Old North State, with celebrations and solemn observances taking place in different parts of the state from the mountain to the coast.

Mountains

Memorial Day Weekend at Rumbling Bald, Lake Lure

April 24-27

The real history of Memorial Day (plus 9 ways to celebrate it in NC)

Rumbling Bald, a gated community on Lake Lure, hosts four days of Memorial Day celebrations.

Rumbling Bald is an exclusive gated community for both residents and lodging guests on the picturesque Lake Lure near Asheville. If you can secure a place to stay in the quaint community over Memorial Day weekend, you’ll have access to four days of Memorial Day celebrations comprising live music, beach cookouts, games, s’mores nights, and additional festivities.

It all kicks off with a beach party on Friday evening that concludes with a marshmallow roast and a beachside concert from The New Primitive, with festivities continuing throughout the weekend, ending with a tournament at Apple Valley Golf Course on Monday morning. If it’s too short notice to find something this year, why not book something for 2025? Memorial Day is always a memorable occasion at Rumbling Bald.

Smoky Mountain Relay, Bryson City

April 25-26

Many Americans choose to pay homage to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice by pushing themselves to the limit with races and other extreme challenges on Memorial Day weekend. Consider this on the most extreme end of that spectrum.

Put together a six-, nine-, or 12-person team to break up the 36 legs on this 200-mile race course — a wild but beautiful adventure through the mountains of western North Carolina. You and your team will pass through the Pisgah National Forest, the Nantahala National Forest as well as hit the Blue Ridge Parkway for two exchanges.

Asheville Jazz Orchestra Memorial Day Performance, Asheville

May 27

The real history of Memorial Day (plus 9 ways to celebrate it in NC)

(Photo via Asheville Jazz Orchestra)

This concert is fast becoming a tradition for Asheville, as folks can kick back in The Meadow at Highland Brewing Co. with a cold one and listen to the Asheville Jazz Orchestra (AJO) perform the the great big band charts ranging from the 1940s to today.

Founded by Dr. David Wilken in 2006 and a proud partner of the Asheville Jazz Council, the AJO has performed at many educational music festivals, including the City of the Arts Jazz Festival, Patton High School Jazz Festival, Western Carolina University Trumpet Festival, the NC NCMEA Conference, and the Our World Festival.

The free performance at Highland Brewing Co., located at 12 Old Charlotte Highway, will take place from 2-5 p.m.

Piedmont

Carowinds’ Carolina Harbor Opening & Fireworks, Charlotte

May 25

With all active and retired military members including National Guard, reserves, and veterans eligible for a free ticket to Charlotte’s 407-acre amusement park throughout Memorial Day weekend, your best bet is to snag one on Saturday. That’s Opening Day for Carolina Harbor, the park’s massive water park featuring dozens of water slides, splash pads, two wave pools, cabanas and more.

Feel the thrill on Boogie Board Racer, the Southeast’s longest mat-racing slide, or just take it easy at the Surf Club Harbor wave pool. Whatever you choose, be sure to stick around ‘til closing for the “Summer BLAST! Fireworks Show,” which will be visible throughout the park, with prime viewing spots in the Carolina Boardwalk, County Fair, and Celebration Plaza-areas.

First Fruits Farm Memorial Balloon Festival, Louisburg

May 25-26

First Fruits Farm holds this annual event in the suburbs of Raleigh with a goal of “remembering our fallen military heroes throughout the weekend in a real and deserving way via a safe and family-oriented event by creating a spirit of honor centered on faith, patriotism, perseverance, service, and celebration,” according to the website.

Kicking off with the US Navy Ceremonial Band on Saturday morning, performers throughout the weekend include Paige King Johnson, The Will McBridge Group, and Dalton Davis, among others. And as the name suggests, there will be balloons. More than 20 hot air balloons are set to hit the skies over the weekend, some of which will be offering rides — tethered and untethered.

USNWC Memorial Day Race & Celebrations, Charlotte

May 25-26

 

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You can always count on the US National Whitewater Center (USNWC) to hold a race and follow it up with a party on just about any given holiday, and Memorial Day is no different. Kick things off with a Saturday morning race through the USNWC’s trail system, running along the Catawba River with 3-, 5-, and 8-mile options.

Stick around when you’re done, however; the fun ain’t over yet. Enjoy live music throughout the weekend and illuminated activities on Sunday evening. New for 2024 is the Watermelon Wrangle. Compete in a raft race down the Competition Channel in teams of four to six while collecting as many greasy watermelons as possible. The team who wrangles the most watermelons within the time limit wins.

Coast

Battleship NC Memorial Day Observance Ceremony, Wilmington

May 27

Gather on the fantail of the 36,000-ton, 728-foot Battleship North Carolina to remember those who gave their lives in service by honoring veterans at the battleship’s traditional Memorial Day Observance, which will feature a military guest speaker, an all-service color guard, a 21-gun salute by a Marine Corps Honor Guard, a military band, taps, and a memorial wreath cast into the waters.

Monday’s Military Guest of Honor will be Col. Marshalee E. Clarke, commanding officer of the Marine Corps Combat Service Support Schools at Camp Lejeune. Admission to the free event starts at 3 p.m., with ceremonies beginning at 4 p.m.

North Carolina Fossil Festival, Aurora

May 25-27

This one-of-a-kind festival in Aurora kicks off with an NC Fossil Fest parade honoring our veterans and those who sacrificed their lives for this country on Saturday morning, then ends with an appreciation breakfast for veterans and first responders on Monday morning.

Between all that lies plenty of family-friendly fun. Activities at this free festival include digging for fossils, fossil displays, silent auction, nonprofit vendors, movie night, parade, live entertainment, food and craft vendors, a Saturday night glow party, a dinosaur show, and more.

The Outer Banks

May 24-27

While we couldn’t find one specific Memorial Day celebration on the Outer Banks that caught our attention, the entire strip was recently voted one of the Top 10 places in the country to celebrate the holiday weekend thanks to its wide sandy shores and beauty. These beaches are ideal for beachcombing, kite flying, or relaxing by the sea.

There are also plenty of ways to honor those who fought and died for the country, including the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, which houses and displays artifacts and presents a variety of exhibits interpreting the rich maritime culture that includes war, piracy, ghost ships and more. Artifacts include those from the USS Monitor, which sank 16 miles off the Hatteras coast.

There’s also the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, which memorializes the US Life-Saving Service and its successor, the U.S. Coast Guard, though it’s closed on Memorial Day. Or visit the Dare County Regional Airport Museum, which honors a number of historic happenings in the Outer Banks involving the Navy and the Civil Air Patrol.

Author

  • Ryan Pitkin

    Ryan Pitkin is a writer and editor based in Charlotte, where he runs an alternative weekly newspaper called Queen City Nerve. He is also editor of NoDa News, a community newsletter in the neighborhood where he has lived for 15 years.

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