Monday, May 27, 2019

The Martyrs of the Race Course, 1865

The Charleston Daily Courier reported the following story on May 1st, 1865:


CHARLESTON, South Carolina — The ceremonies of the dedication of the ground where are buried two hundred and fifty-seven Union soldiers, took place in the presence of an immense gathering yesterday. Fully ten thousand persons were present, mostly of the colored population.

The ground had been previously laid out, the mounds of the graves newly raised, and a fine substantial fence erected around the enclosure by twenty-four colored men, "Friends of the Martyrs," and members of the "Patriotic Association of Colored Men."

The exercises on the ground commenced with reading a Psalm, singing a hymn, followed by a prayer. The procession was formed shortly after nine o’clock, and made a beautiful appearance, nearly every one present bearing a handsome boquet of flowers. The colored children, about twenty-eight hundred in number, marched first over the burial ground, strewing the graves with their flowers as the passed.

After the children came the "Patriotic Association of Colored Men," an association formed for the purpose of assisting in the distribution of the Freedmen’s supplies. These numbered about one hundred members. "The Mutual Aid Society," an association formed for the purpose of burying poor colored people, about two hundred strong followed next. These were followed by the citizens generally, nearly all with boquets, which were also laid upon the graves.

While standing around the graves the school children sung, "The Star Spangled Banner," "America" and "Rally Rund the Flag," and while marching sang, "John Brown’s Body." The graves at the close of the procession had all the appearance of a mass of roses.

Among those present at the speaker’s stand inside the enclosure, were General Hartwell, Colonel Gurney, Colonel Beecher, Rev. Mr. Lowe, Mr. James Redpath and others.

-- end of The Charleston Daily Courier newspaper article of May 1st, 1865. 

Some say that event was the first Memorial Day observance. While it was not the first "official" observance as that came about in 1868, I'd say that it is the first "un-official" Memorial Day observance on record.

One report says that "after the work was done, it was reported that some 10,000 freed black Charlestonians gathered at that cemetery to recite Psalms and scriptures, pray, sing hymns, and lay flowers for those they saw as their saviors. It's said that the ceremony there was all followed by a sort of picnic."

Since food was scarce during the 585-day siege of Charleston, I can't help but wonder if that report is true or not. A picnic? Really? And as for the figure of 10,000 freed slaves? Fact is, Charleston, South Carolina, was a city of 40,522 in 1860. By 1865 that city was almost deserted. And since it was a city with 25 percent of blacks, I don't know if I'd trust trust that figure.

Remember, it was devastated, utterly destroyed, by the end of the Civil War. No food, water, and it's said that the stench of the city was unbearable as it reeked of death and despair. It's believed that some of the dead were buried beneath the rubble as a result of the Union siege.

Let's keep in mind that Charleston was a primary target for the Union during the Civil War. It was from there on April 12th, 1861 that South Carolina militia forces including cadets from the Citadel fired the first shots of the war by bombarding Fort Sumter into surrender. Because of that, Union Forces laid siege for well over a year.

The Union attacked that city starting in late 1863, and it finally ended when the city surrender to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman in February of 1865. It's said that by the time of its surrender, most of Charleston had been destroyed during the Union siege by constant bombardment using artillery and Union naval ships stationed there for the purpose of bring that city to its knees.

Charleston actually had three Confederate Prisoner of War Camps. Prisoner of War were being held at the Charleston City Jail, and at Castle Pinckney which was a U.S. Army Post prior to the war. The largest of the three was on the outskirts of the city. It was actually the grounds of Charleston's Washington Race Course and Jockey Club.

Yale Historian David Blight described that camp as follows: "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."

Because by the end of the war a great deal of the white population there had already left Charleston to evade the constant bombardment, most of those there were recently freed black slaves. That means that when Union troops of the 54th Massachusetts, and the 20th, 35th and 104th U.S. Colored Troops Regiments marched into Charleston to begin its occupation, those troops were greeted by mostly freed slaves who saw them as their liberators.

Of those freed slaves, about 28 of them almost immediately started work to right a wrong. They know of the horrible conditions, the filth, the starvation, disease, and death that took place at the POW Camp ran by the Confederate Army at the race track. They knew also of the mass graves.

It was those freed slaves who saw those dead Union soldiers as "Martyrs" to be honored. So it was they who dug them up and properly re-interred the 257 Union troops who died there.  

After they re-interred those troops, those freed slaves are said to have then built a high fence around it and an arch at the entrance of the cemetery. The inscribed "Martyrs of the Race Course" was supposedly on that arch.

In the 1880s, the Federal government removed those buried at that cemetery and actually re-interred them in the newly designation national cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina. As for the race track, it became known as Hampton Park. Believe it or not, it was named for Wade Hampton.

Wade Hampton is interesting in that he was a former Confederate General who is said to have resented having black Union troops as part of the Federal government's occupying force in South Carolina. His personal history is one for a later blog post.

As for the old cemetery with the entrance that read "Martyrs of the Race Course," its been gone since the Federal government relocated those Union troops in the 1880s.

Tom Correa

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