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By William Haupt III | The Center Square contributor
A Memorial Day (Decoration Day) weekend afternoon view at Fort Sheridan Cemetery. – Michael Heimlich | Shutterstock.com
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King
Since the tragic death of George Floyd, America has witnessed one tragedy after another as the media has fueled one of the most divisive periods in history since the Civil War’s brother against brother. Lost in the ashes of this unrest and unfound claims of systematic racism and the decadent anti-forgiving cancel culture of woke-ism are memories of many of our nation’s greatest unifiers.
No historical event has left a deeper imprint on America’s memory than the U.S. Civil War of 1861.
By 1865, a war-torn North and South began the slow and painful process of reconciliation. Hidden deep within the archives during unification are some of America’s greatest moments. These events emphasize the appreciation of Black Americans for the heroes who once wore the Blue and Gray.
United States Colored Troops (USCT) – National Archives Record
Lost in our national culture is much of the sincere empathy for the contributions of Black Americans during and after the war. Untold and forgotten events that helped win the war and reunify “brother with brother” remind us that many of these moral crusades were some of our greatest victories.
United States Colored Troops, aka USCT, embodied Frederick Douglass’ belief that “he who would be free must himself strike the blow.” A total of 179,000 Black patriots, many of whom were former slaves, volunteered to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Over 37,000 gave their lives in a war they knew they had to win. With every battle they fought, the USCT proved that they could out-duel any foe.
Recruiting Broadside for United States Colored Troops, from Freeman, Elsie, Wynell Burroughs Schamel, and Jean West. “The Fight for Equal Rights: A Recruiting Poster for Black Soldiers in the Civil War.”
USCT units displayed courage under fire and won glory on the fields of battle at Port Hudson in Louisiana, Fort Wagner in South Carolina, New Market Heights, Spotsylvania and Wilson’s Wharf in Virginia. Records indicate that over 10% of the Union army was comprised of Black Americans.
“We need more people with enough patriotism to live up to the Constitution.”
– Frederick Douglass
The USCT were a watershed in American history, and one of the first major strides toward equal civil rights. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass said that when the USCT was formed it transformed the Civil War from a conflict for restoration of the Union into a moral crusade to end American slavery.
Besides the patriotic USCT, many other Black Americans contributed to the critical rebuilding of our broken union. Most of these were former slaves who remained in the south following the Civil War during Reconstruction. Despite economic hardship, segregation, and denial of equal rights, they were grateful for every soldier of every color who fought and died to deliver them their freedom.
One of the casualties of war is the graves of so many unknown heroes. After the American Civil War, a battered America faced the task of burying and honoring 800,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. Shortly after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865, groups of former slaves gathered in Charleston, South Carolina, to pay tribute to and memorialize the unknown fallen Union soldiers.
Washington Race Track 1792-1900 – The grandstand on the north side of the course was erected in 1836. This 1857 view of the grandstand was published in John Beaufain Irving’s The South Carolina Jockey Club.
Charleston’s Washington Race Track had been transformed by the Confederate army into a prison. Prisoners were confined there without medical supplies, shelter, or sanitation with little food to eat. Over 250 died of war wounds and diseases. They were dumped into a massive grave site behind the grandstand.
”It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”
– Robert E. Lee
To Black Americans in Charleston, the former Washington Race Track and Union graveyard was a painful reminder of the despicable and inhumane treatment that had been inflicted upon those that liberated them. Many of them had been forced to help bury these heroes in this communal grave.
Library of Congress preserves this photo taken in 1865 while the African-American reconstruction of the cemetery in Charleston was in progress. The rows of markers are newly established individual Union graves.
As these grateful citizens watched the Confederates leave Charleston, they would return to the race track and pray for the soldiers. Black workmen came back to the gravesite and reburied the Union soldiers with dignity. To protect the graves and preserve their memory they built a fence around the cemetery with these words inscribed at the entrance; “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
“If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
– Martin Luther King
According to reports in The Charleston Courier, on May 1, 1865, a crowd of over 10,000 former slaves, white abolitionists and missionaries staged a parade around the race track. Over 3,000 Black children laid flowers upon the graves and sang gospel music. The famed Black-American 54th regiment and other USCT troops performed a special march around the gravesite of these fallen Union soldiers. Black ministers led people in prayer and recited Bible verses in their memory.
The first national commemoration of Decoration Day (renamed Memorial Day after WW II to honor all fallen soldiers) was held in Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868. People came from states around the U.S. to pay tribute to both Union and Confederate soldiers. Some 5,000 people decorated the graves of over 20,000 Civil War soldiers from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Picture of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Burial of Federal dead. It was taken in 1864 by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, 1840-1882.
Cities in the North and South, from Macon, Georgia to Richmond, Virginia to Carbondale, Illinois, claim they held the first Decoration Day. Yet, the actual founding of this holiday and most official accounts of why it was a special day for the freed slaves of Charleston, South Carolina, have been erased from public memory and have been removed from Common Core public school textbooks.
Abraham Lincoln said, “We cannot escape our history.” In 450 BC, Greek author Herodotus wrote the first history book to warn future Greeks about the tragic Greco-Persian Wars so future cultures would not repeat them.
“The only good is knowledge, and the only evil is ignorance’’
Our public schools and the liberal media are depriving generations of Americans of knowledge of salient events and moral tributes by groups and individuals that helped bring Americans together at critical times in our history. These were special people that did special things that built bridges over past cataclysms. They refused to dwell on the past and helped build a better future for Americans.
We can’t predict the future but we can avoid repeating our past mistakes if we know what we did wrong and what we did right. If we do not revisit our failures and our achievements we are doomed to fail again. Those who have no knowledge of their past lack the tools needed for a better future.
When former slaves honored their Union liberators on the first Decoration Day, it was the beginning of the healing for America after the Civil War. These former slaves wished to mourn those who died for their freedom and forgave those who had oppressed them. America needed healing and these former slaves paved the way for all America. Maybe we can do the same again on Decoration Day.
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Author: Frances Rice