Martyrs of the Race Course

| May 27, 2022

Abraham Lincoln was not wrong about a lot of things, but he was wrong about one thing. In his dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, Lincoln assured his listeners that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Because of his eloquence, an eloquence that sprang from a soul of profound empathy and compassion, we shall long remember what he said. We have, though, forgotten many of the extraordinary deeds of otherwise ordinary men and women. Among these forgotten deeds are those that took place on our first Decoration Day, today called Memorial Day.

According to Dave Roos, writing on, Confederate soldiers converted a race track called the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into a prison camp for Union soldiers. Some 260 of those soldiers died from maltreatment and poor conditions, only to be interred in an unmarked mass grave. When the Confederate troops evacuated Charleston, the emancipated slaves disinterred the soldiers and reburied them in a new cemetery inscribed with the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.” I do not know if the men and women who honored these men so poignantly knew it, but the double-entendre is impossible to ignore.

We owe our knowledge of this event to Yale professor David Blight, who found handwritten accounts and newspaper articles in “two boxes of unsorted material from Union veterans” at Harvard’s Houghton Library. Roos tells us that “according to two reports that Blight found in The New York Tribune and The Charleston Courier, a crowd of 10,000 people, mostly freed slaves with some white missionaries, staged a parade around the race track. Three thousand Black schoolchildren carried bouquets of flowers and sang ‘John Brown’s Body.’ Members of the famed 54th Massachusetts and other Black Union regiments were in attendance and performed double-time marches. Black ministers recited verses from the Bible.”

That celebration in honor of the Union martyrs took place on May 1, 1865. The deeds of emancipated slaves are no longer forgotten. Neither is our task completed. In the words of Lincoln:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

 Amen to that.

* Lincoln, A. “Gettysburg Address” Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 1863. Accessed on 05.20.2022.

** Roos, D. “One of the Earliest Memorial Day Ceremonies Was Held by Freed African Americans”. History | Online, May 10, 2021. Accessed on 05.19.2022.