Meg Hemauer slides her fingers over a marble tablet in the Beaufort National Cemetery, touching the legacy of her great-great-grandmother and the all-but-forgotten origins of Memorial Day.
Hemauer is counting the names etched in a tablet that lies flat atop a short brick foundation on a bright Saturday morning in May. There are 167 names -- Union soldiers who gave their lives to preserve the United States of America during the Civil War.
Her great-great-grandmother, Eliza Potter, had promised them that their sacrifice would not be forgotten as they lay sick and dying under her care in a Confederate prisoner of war camp in Charleston.
In 1870, Potter fulfilled her promise to the soldiers by placing their names in the hallowed grounds of Beaufort's then-new cemetery. She also had a 20-foot obelisk placed prominently along one of the cemetery's roads. "Immortality to Hundreds of Defenders of American Liberty Against the Great Rebellion," it reads.
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Today, Hemauer is piecing together details of Eliza Potter's remarkable life. And even though she works full-time as a nursing home social worker in North Carolina, she's trying to find descendants of all those named on the tablet.
She hopes that someday they can have a grand reunion.
And when they do, they'll discover that the men Eliza Potter remembered also were the subjects of America's first Memorial Day.
Eliza Potter was a doer.
She came to America as an orphan from Ireland at age 13 and was married at 15. She moved from the North to Charleston with her husband. They had four children. She was a dressmaker and hat-maker, but soon found herself a widow.
She was remarried to a successful native of Rhode Island who worked in the building trade. Lorenzo T. Potter adopted her children and together they had three more. The Potters were praised for their civic, business and religious leadership in bustling antebellum Charleston.
Lorenzo Potter helped build the foundation to Fort Sumter, the cradle of the Civil War. He helped rebuild the Charleston Hotel, with its giant order Corinthian colonnade extending a full block on Meeting Street.
Hemauer's research shows that when war broke out, the Potters stood with the Union. Suddenly, they were seen as traitors. Their friends turned on them. A teenaged son died from the beatings of classmates who wanted him to surrender a Union flag.
Eliza Potter used her pluck to tend to Union prisoners of war in Charleston, despite being ordered to stay away. She brought them food, water, clothing, bedding and comfort. She did laundry. She managed to get fruit from Nassau smuggled through the Confederate blockade.
The Potters poured tens of thousands of dollars -- perhaps $100,000 -- into care for the Union troops. The war left this prosperous couple with little, though they were able to raise money for the monuments in Beaufort. After her husband's death in 1872, Congress awarded Eliza Potter compensation of $20,000.
She left the Lowcountry and the graves of three of her children in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery for Evanston, Ill. Her children were educated at Northwestern University. Her oldest son became a successful railroad civil engineer and executive. Her baby girl, Lillie Rose Potter, became dean at Lasell College in Massachusetts, where Eliza Potter lived her last days.
Clara Barton, the nurse who founded the American Red Cross and also was in the Lowcountry during the Civil War, later wrote to Eliza's children of "your precious mother, whose noble, patriotic heart and life have taught us many lessons."
John Fischer's name is etched in Eliza Potter's tablet in Beaufort, but he should never have been in America's Civil War.
Mike Fischer of upstate New York has spent the past five years researching his great-granduncle, and in the process found Hemauer.
When they recently met at Eliza Potter's tablet on May 2, Mike Fischer explained that John was named Johann when he was born in Germany. He emigrated with his family to West Utica, N.Y., as a 2-year-old.
He had a hardscrabble life after his father died, but he was apparently enjoying the social scene when the Civil War broke out. John Fischer was not required to enlist because he wasn't a citizen, but he apparently accepted the bonus for going in someone else's place.
"At the end of the day, he was just a kid who went off to the war thinking it was going to be all glory and over in a couple of months and then found out that's not how it was," Mike Fischer said.
He enlisted in the 146th New York State Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which wore colorful dress that looked more like pajamas than a uniform.
"The letters that he wrote back home are amazing," Mike Fischer said, punching up ancestry links on his smartphone while standing in Beaufort National Cemetery.
"One minute he's talking about issues related to having shoes and the next minute he is talking about another soldier who shot himself. And the next minute he's joking about the size of the lice in camp. He said he wanted to send one back to his brother, but he couldn't afford the postage because they were so big, so he was even cracking jokes."
The letters stopped when John Fischer was taken prisoner in the Battle of the Wilderness.
Mike Fischer and his oldest son have taken an off-and-on pilgrimage during the past year to retrace John Fischer's steps.
They have been to Andersonville, Ga., site of a hideous Confederate POW camp.
And they have been to Charleston, where young John Fischer died Dec. 4, 1864. He languished in a prison camp at the Washington Race Course where he was presumably cared for by Eliza Potter -- and where Memorial Day was born.
First Decoration Day
Yale University history professor David W. Blight says "extraordinary luck" led to his discovery of the first Decoration Day.
What our nation marks today as Memorial Day began at that race course, where the barons of the antebellum South raced Thoroughbreds in one of Charleston's gayest annual events.
Blight learned that at least 257 Union prisoners of war died of exposure and disease in an outdoor prison at the race course. They were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.
During the final throes of the war, some 28 African-American workmen re-buried the Union dead, giving each a marker. Then they built a fence around the cemetery, whitewashed it, and wrote "Martyrs of the Race Course" over an archway.
America's first formal outpouring of thanks to martyrs for freedom was a grand affair that began right there at 9 a.m. on May 1, 1865.
Aided by white missionaries and teachers, Blight said, it was "an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people ... led by thousands of black school children carrying arm loads of roses and singing 'John Brown's Body.' The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens."
Flower petals piled high on the graves. Black ministers read from Scripture. Children sang spirituals and "We'll Rally Around the Flag." Following the ceremony, Blight writes, "they enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill ..."
"The war was over, and Decoration Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration."
Today the old race course is part of the city's Hampton Park. A plaque outlines in a few words what took place there.
But when Brian Hicks, a columnist for The (Charleston) Post and Courier, wrote about it in 2009, it was news to most local folks.
Hemauer and Fischer made it a point to be there on May 1 -- exactly 150 years after the first Decoration Day. They were joined by Marshall Woodward of Charleston, who also had kin in the camp.
But they were disappointed. The unforgettable parade had been forgotten.
The only sound to interrupt the silence was an occasional jogger.
"Knowing how much Eliza wanted us to remember the young men in her care, and knowing about the first Memorial Day, it was so important for us to be there," Hemauer said.
After the Civil War, the body of John Fischer and other "Martyrs of the Race Course" were reinterred in the Beaufort National Cemetery.
In the decades since, their sacrifices have largely been forgotten by the public.
And their stories have been lost too, even to their descendants.
"All that remained in our family history about him (John Fischer) was this little hint, not even a paragraph, a sentence really, and to me that just didn't seem fitting," Mike Fisher said.
Hemauer, Fischer and others are working to breathe new life into the stories of their ancestors and their contributions to the nation -- each filling in family trees that revolve around the Beaufort memorial. Their stories could intertwine with hundreds of other families.
Fischer would like to expand the reunion to include descendants of the freedmen who gave the country its first observance that is now called Memorial Day.
"I'm a middle-aged, conservative white guy who wants this story told," Fischer said.
He stands in the cemetery and recites current events, with America's racial divide spilling into the streets of Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and North Charleston.
He calls the first Decoration Day a shining moment for the nation.
"Can that provide some common ground for reconnection? I don't know. I don't think it can hurt," he said.
"There's a lot of other reasons why this matters, beyond my little family tree. There are bigger implications for our society, I think."