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The Memorial Day history forgot: The Martyrs of the Race Course

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01.06.2021

It has become a Daily Kos tradition for me to republish this Memorial Day story I wrote in 2016. I have ancestors, Black and white, who fought for the Union during the Civil War. This is posted in their honor. —DOV

A pencil drawing and a grainy photo in the Library of Congress are all that is left of the cemetery where 257 Union soldiers were buried after the Civil War, on what had been a race course in Charleston, South Carolina.

Nor has much been written about the memorial celebration held by more than 10,000 mostly newly freed blacks, which was one of the first, if not the first memorial held for those who fought to end slavery.

Civil War historian David Blight, who first surfaced the history, describes the event for the Zinn Education Project:

War kills people and destroys human creation; but as though mocking war's devastation, flowers inevitably bloom through its ruins. After a long siege, a prolonged bombardment for months from all around the harbor, and numerous fires, the beautiful port city of Charleston, South Carolina, where the war had begun in April, 1861, lay in ruin by the spring of 1865. The city was largely abandoned by white residents by late February. Among the first troops to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the Twenty First U. S. Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the formal surrender of the city.

Thousands of Black Charlestonians, most former slaves, remained in the city and conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events, and unknown until some extraordinary luck in my recent research, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters' horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight Black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, "Martyrs of the Race........

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