The first Memorial Day, Confederate women, and the erasure of Black History
An abbreviated history on the holiday
Welcome to my newsletter by me, King Williams. A documentary filmmaker, journalist, podcast host, and author based in Atlanta, Georgia.
photo courtesy of The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/30/opinion/30blight.html
I hope everyone had a great Memorial Day everyone and my bad for missing the date for this post. I thought it would be good to keep it short and sweet today, so here’s a brief historical overview of Black erasure, and the Confederate roots of Memorial Day.
Before we start I strongly suggest everyone take time to read the work of Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt, a professor and a generally wonderful person who’s written several really great books on the insight of labor, race, class, and the south. She’s also started a YouTube channel and is a really good follow on Twitter.
I’d also say take time to check out the work of David Silkenat, a professor of history at the University of Edinborough in Scottland, and author of several books about the south from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement. With that, I’d like to add historian, Kevin M. Levin, who has also written several books on southern history, including the persistent myths regarding Black confederates. Emory’s own Joe Crespino, the chair of the History Department, whose focus is on the American South after Reconstruction, and author of several books including one on Atticus Finch.
And lastly, the work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning, The Atlantic Magazine contributor, and Yale University professor David W. Blight, who’s work on unearthing the Black history of Memorial Day will be often cited.
The First Memorial Day is not what you think it was…
From the immediate years after the Civil War until now, the notion of what Memorial Day is and the history behind it, haven’t been on the same page.
The notion of Memorial Day today is a series of patriotic celebrations of military men and women who’ve served in combat. While this is true, there’s a much greater backstory on Memorial Day and that may not be in-line with how you perceive the holiday. Memorial Day (then called Decoration Day), had evolved into a series of related and unrelated events, occurring for years across the US, primarily in the south. These memorials didn’t fully coalesce into the holiday as we know it in the modern era until around the Vietnam War. As many as two dozen locations across the US lay claim to being the first place to honor fallen soldiers.
But it wasn’t until the work of Yale University history professor David W. Blight in the mid-90s, that no one had ever thought to even question whether or not Black Americans had even contributed to Memorial Day. Blight was doing research on the topic, for his eventual book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American History, and found an 1865 Charleston Daily Courier newspaper article. That article became the lynchpin for understanding the forgotten history of Black Americans to both the Civil War and now Memorial Day.
Black Union Army soldiers, freed slaves, and white abolitionists were most likely at the first Memorial Day
One of the First (if not the first) Memorial Day remembrances was held on May 1st, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina, less than a month after the official end of the Civil War on April 9th, 1865.
Black Union Army troops had descended on Charleston in February 1865 as a part of occupation as hundreds of Confederate supporters had already left the city.
These Black soldiers found the bodies of hundreds of dead Union soldiers buried in a mass grave at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, which had been turned into a Confederate Army and prison camp. The soldiers rounded up the bodies and held a proper burial for the fallen. The burial was held at the site after Black Union soldiers, workmen, and newly freed slaves built a wall around the gravesite, inscribing the phrase "Martyrs of the Race Course."
This was followed by a parade celebration of an estimated 10,000 people including nearly 3,000 school-aged children, as well as a few White, northern missionaries.
During this time spirituals were sung, alongside “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and "John Brown's Body," a tribute to the White, revolutionary abolition who aided in a slave revolt. Also during that time, the school-aged children held roses for the fallen soldiers during the parade, those flowers would be eventually placed over the graves of the fallen soldiers. The first official Memorial Day barbeque and picnic recorded after the event. But here's the problem, Charleston, South Carolina’s history towards Memorial Day was never mentioned until recently.
Who held the first Memorial Day is still up for debate
This debate has been raging across the south for decades.
Charleston, South Carolina is considered by many as one of, if not the earliest showing of a Memorial Day celebration as we know it. But Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claims they have the first celebration in 1864 as a group of women gathered to mourn the dead killed at Gettysburg. This is is still contentious as Warrenton, Virginia in 1861, Savannah, Georgia in 1862, and Gettysburg in 1863 all want to claim they’re first.
These were all small, even personal commemorations, and not the full coordinated ceremonies associated with memorializing a large number of people related directly to war. While the US lists Waterloo, New York, as the official first Memorial Day, as then-president Lyndon B. Johnson signed a declaration into law in 1966. This declaration has been contested and Waterloo’s connection is being called into question.
The official story goes something like this…
In May 1868, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a group made up of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Logan issued General Order Number 11 designating May 30th as a national day of commemoration for the soldiers killed, both Union and Confederate during Civil War.
As a result of these noble partisan efforts, Logan is one of the thirty-three individuals laid to rest at the US Capitol and the DC neighborhood of Logan Circle and Logan Square in Chicago is named after him.
So here’s the thing on Logan…
Logan was an Illinois lawyer turned politician who spent his pre-Civil War career as a Democrat, who among other things helped pass a law to prohibit all Blacks, including freedmen, from settling in the state, which was a part of what we know call ‘The Black Codes’. After the Civil War, Logan would spend the next 20 years of his life as a Republican lawmaker, serving in both the House and Senate. During his time on the national level, Logan would serve on the committee to impeach President Andrew Johnson, work towards making Memorial Day (then called Decoration Day) into a national holiday, and work to maintain the court-martial of Fitz John Porter, a story that is way too much to dive into today.
Pro-Confederate women built a lot of the Civil War ethos
But…the thing about that story is that is the official story and how we got Memorial Day put into place is really because of the Daughters of the Confederacy and (maybe) Columbus, Georgia.
By 1866 several southern towns and cities were already honoring the fallen confederate soldiers and generals. Many of them were hosting ceremonies throughout the south between the spring and summer. Many of these were in honor of the former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Gen. Robert E. Lee, or in commemoration of the surrender of the last remaining Confederate army base at Bennett Place on Wednesday, April 26, 1865. So, in the spring of 1886, one year after the Confederate surrender, and after Lincoln’s assassination, there were several Confederate memorials already taking place.
In Columbus, the southwestern section of Georgia, on the Alabama-Georgia border, the Ladies Memorial Association, aided by Mary Ann Williams were working to get legislation passed to memorialize the Confederate war dead. But even that statement of who was first is contentious as Columbus, Mississippi, Richmond, Virginia, and even Macon (central), Georgia, make claims to be the first.
As a result, Mary Ann Williams is given credit as the first person to advocate for the concept of Memorial Day, but this was for Confederate soldiers. And the organization that Mary Ann was apart of the Ladies Memorial Association, an organization not talked about enough in classrooms, was one of the earliest versions of an enabling group regarding racialized myths post-Civil War. Groups like the LMA popped up across the south, initially to mourn the loss of confederate soldiers but quickly evolved into a fundraising and advocacy organization for pro-confederate remembrances throughout the south.
Something that is still happening today.
Black Americans were removed from the narrative
What emerged after the Civil War, was a strategic social reframing of the war with much input from various women and memorial associations throughout the south.
Through these associations, the notion of southern aristocracy, the myth of the lost cause, the reframing of the root cause of slavery away by using the framework of ‘states rights’, popularizing the use of terms like ‘the war between the states’ instead of the Civil War, and the creation of Seg (segregation) Academies, to name a few.
What was key throughout all of these organizations and initiatives was a strategic removal or downplaying of the role of Black Americans during the war. These actions led to early versions of constructing ideologies of southern pride, masculinity, and the early stages of Confederate monuments to be placed around the south.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy was established in 1894 in Nashville, Tennessee by Caroline Meriwether Goodlett and Anna Davenport Raines. The memorial associations had already laid the blueprint of fundraising and confederate-centered, women-led activism throughout the south.
As a result, the UDC evolved into a much greater lobbying and fundraising organization as many members and chapters merged into the UDC. The UDC was also very much about the purposeful (and selective) history of telling the story of the Civil War, including more stories about confederate women. These efforts helped shape the education across the south from an elementary to a university level. The UDC became so ingrained with the education that they offered collegiate and nursing scholarships, donated money to universities, in addition to helping secure funds for hospitals throughout the south.
The Memorial Associations and The Daughters of the Confederacy are responsible for the confederate monuments
The UDC became a quite powerful organization and their tactical movements help raise generations of future Southern lawmakers, judges, and others. Even in innocuous spaces such as highway names, the UDC made sure they were named after those in the confederacy.
image courtesy of CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2017/08/16/us/confederate-monuments-backlash-chart-trnd/index.html
The UDC’s biggest and longest-lasting artifacts of the UDC and Memorial associations can be seen in the sheer number of Confederate monuments erected throughout the south.
The first was after Reconstruction as pro-confederate whites took over every aspect of the political, judicial, and economic sources of power throughout the south. The second was in the 1910s-20s due in part to World War I, the second rise of the KKK, and the 1915 film ‘Birth of a Nation’. The third would come during the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s-60s.
Stone Mountain’s 100-foot mural is because of the Daughters of the Confederacy
You can see the UDC’s efforts in places like Stone Mountain Park, where the largest Confederate memorial in the US is located.
Adorning Stone Mountain is a 100-foot sculpture of confederate generals Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson is erected on the north side of the mountain.
And to top it off, the park was also home to the second resurrection of the KKK and opened on April 14th, 1965, 100 years to the day of Lincoln’s assassination. The park has rebranded as a family fun attraction and is the most popular location to visit in the entire state. But has kept all of the confederate street names, confederate flags, and carvings but doesn’t mention them as much in public. Additionally, removing these monuments is illegal due to current Governor Brian Kemp passing a law to remove them. Stone Mountain will be a separate media project altogether, there’s too much to go over but you can read an article I wrote back in 2019 for the Saporta Report on it.
As time went on, so did the nature of Memorial Day
After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln 5 days after the end of the Civil War in 1865, the nature of Memorial Day changed as several northern states began paying tributes to the 16th president.
Lincoln was also the first civilian memorial ever in the US and culminated in the unveiling/dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in May of 1922. But the linkage to armed service has changed as the US added two additional holidays for celebration.
The first was Veterans Day which started after World War I and the second, Armed Forces Day which started 5 years after World War II. Between 1868-1970, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30th, it didn’t become a federal holiday until 1971 and didn’t move until the last Monday in the month until the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Since then Memorial Day has become synonymous with a start of summer and an extended weekend. This has led to the overall commercialization of the holiday as well as a time of celebration for most people.
Everything from generic car ads to restaurants and local news all presents the salute to heroes trope without much context of what Memorial Day was actually about. Yes, it is about a salute to service but the context on how we got here is just as important as the reason why we are here today. But if you ask the average American, the notion of the first Memorial Day and the reasons behind it will draw a blank stare.
So the celebration is fine, let’s at least take some time to think about it, even at the first Memorial Day celebration in 1865, the newly freed slaves celebrated and held a picnic.
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