The First Memorial Day Began in Charleston, SC

The New York Times features an essay by David W. Blight on the first Memorial Day.  Excerpts follow

 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/30/opinion/30blight.html?pagewanted=all

MOST Americans know that Memorial Day is about honoring the nation’s war dead. It is also a holiday devoted to department store sales, half-marathons, picnics, baseball and auto racing. But where did it begin, who created it, and why?

At the end of the Civil War, Americans faced a formidable challenge: how to memorialize 625,000 dead soldiers, Northern and Southern. As Walt Whitman mused, it was “the dead, the dead, the dead – our dead – or South or North, ours all” that preoccupied the country. After all, if the same number of Americans per capita had died in Vietnam as died in the Civil War, four million names would be on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, instead of 58,000.

Officially, in the North, Memorial Day emerged in 1868 when the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, called on communities to conduct grave-decorating ceremonies. On May 30, funereal events attracted thousands of people at hundreds of cemeteries in countless towns, cities and mere crossroads. By the 1870s, one could not live in an American town, North or South, and be unaware of the spring ritual.

But the practice of decorating graves – which gave rise to an alternative name, Decoration Day – didn’t start with the 1868 events, nor was it an exclusively Northern practice. In 1866 the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Columbus, Ga., chose April 26, the anniversary of Gen. Joseph Johnston’s final surrender to Gen. William T. Sherman, to commemorate fallen Confederate soldiers. Later, both May 10, the anniversary of Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s death, and June 3, the birthday of Jefferson Davis, were designated Confederate Memorial Day in different states.

Memorial Days were initially occasions of sacred bereavement, and from the war’s end to the early 20th century they helped forge national reconciliation around soldierly sacrifice, regardless of cause. In North and South, orators and participants frequently called Memorial Day an “American All Saints Day,” likening it to the European Catholic tradition of whole towns marching to churchyards to honor dead loved ones.

But the ritual quickly became the tool of partisan memory as well, at least through the violent Reconstruction years. In the South, Memorial Day was a means of confronting the Confederacy’s defeat but without repudiating its cause. Some Southern orators stressed Christian notions of noble sacrifice. Others, however, used the ritual for Confederate vindication and renewed assertions of white supremacy. Blacks had a place in this Confederate narrative, but only as time-warped loyal slaves who were supposed to remain frozen in the past.

The Lost Cause tradition thrived in Confederate Memorial Day rhetoric; the Southern dead were honored as the true “patriots,” defenders of their homeland, sovereign rights, a natural racial order and a “cause” that had been overwhelmed by “numbers and resources” but never defeated on battlefields.

Yankee Memorial Day orations often righteously claimed the high ground of blood sacrifice to save the Union and destroy slavery. It was not uncommon for a speaker to honor the fallen of both sides, but still lay the war guilt on the “rebel dead.” Many a lonely widow or mother at these observances painfully endured expressions of joyous death on the altars of national survival.

Some events even stressed the Union dead as the source of a new egalitarian America, and a civic rather than a racial or ethnic definition of citizenship. In Wilmington, Del., in 1869, Memorial Day included a procession of Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians and Catholics; white Grand Army of the Republic posts in parade with a black post; and the “Mount Vernon Cornet Band (colored)” keeping step with the “Irish Nationalists with the harp and the sunburst flag of Erin.”

But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.

Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.

The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied 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 Course.”

The symbolic power of this Low Country planter aristocracy’s bastion was not lost on the freedpeople, who then, in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged a parade of 10,000 on the track. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.

After the dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.

The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.

Despite the size and some newspaper coverage of the event, its memory was suppressed by white Charlestonians in favor of their own version of the day. From 1876 on, after white Democrats took back control of South Carolina politics and the Lost Cause defined public memory and race relations, the day’s racecourse origin vanished.

Indeed, 51 years later, the president of the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Charleston received an inquiry from a United Daughters of the Confederacy official in New Orleans asking if it was true that blacks had engaged in such a burial rite in 1865; the story had apparently migrated westward in community memory. Mrs. S. C. Beckwith, leader of the association, responded tersely, “I regret that I was unable to gather any official information in answer to this.”

Beckwith may or may not have known about the 1865 event; her own “official” story had become quite different and had no place for the former slaves’ march on their masters’ racecourse. In the struggle over memory and meaning in any society, some stories just get lost while others attain mainstream recognition.

AS we mark the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, we might reflect on Frederick Douglass’s words in an 1878 Memorial Day speech in New York City, in which he unwittingly gave voice to the forgotten Charleston marchers.

He said the war was not a struggle of mere “sectional character,” but a “war of ideas, a battle of principles.” It was “a war between the old and the new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization … and in dead earnest for something beyond the battlefield.” With or against Douglass, we still debate the “something” that the Civil War dead represent.

The old racetrack is gone, but an oval roadway survives on the site in Hampton Park, named for Wade Hampton, former Confederate general and the governor of South Carolina after the end of Reconstruction. The old gravesite of the Martyrs of the Race Course is gone too; they were reinterred in the 1880s at a national cemetery in Beaufort, S.C.

But the event is no longer forgotten. Last year I had the great honor of helping a coalition of Charlestonians, including the mayor, Joseph P. Riley, dedicate a marker to this first Memorial Day by a reflecting pool in Hampton Park.

By their labor, their words, their songs and their solemn parade on their former owners’ racecourse, black Charlestonians created for themselves, and for us, the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.

David W. Blight, a professor of history and the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale, is the author of the forthcoming “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.”

The Civil War and Emancipation 150 Years On

The Civil War and Emancipation 150 Years On
Edward L. Ayers

Overview:
In his commentary on the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War in Richmond, Virginia, Edward L. Ayers examines centennial celebrations and considers the problem of memorializing contested and painful history.
http://southernspaces.org/2011/civil-war-and-emancipation-150-years

Letter from Charleston

An expanded version of a Letter to the Editor written by CLAW Associate Director Simon Lewis for the Guardian Weekly:

It’s a beautiful sight. The sun is just coming up behind Fort Sumter in front of us, and behind us, across the harbor, the gracious steeple-punctuated skyline of Charleston is coming more clearly into view. A squadron of improbably graceful pelicans skims across the surface, their wingtips centimeters above the calm surface; terns are diving, plovers are keening.

I am here at this site, however, not for its outstanding beauty but for an awkward anniversary, the commemoration of the first shot of the American Civil War, fired from this very spot exactly 150 years ago.

The crowd around me is almost entirely white, some sporting t-shirts adorned with the Confederate battle flag, a few official re-enactors in Confederate grey, a young man holding a red South Carolina banner, and a few recognizable local politicians.

The ceremony draws out the contradictions of claiming and celebrating both Southern and American identity at the same time. The program opens with everyone reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, asserting the indivisibility of the American Republic. It continues with an unabashedly Christian prayer from a local pastor.

As we get closer to the Big Bang—the firing of an original 1847 Seacoast mortar—the sourest note of the proceedings points to the way the Civil War divides the contemporary US not so much (or not only) on regional lines, but on political ones. The event’s m.c., tells us that the mortar has been obtained through the good offices of a band of brothers in Wisconsin. “While you’re about it,” they had joshed, “why don’t you fire off a real shell at Fort Sumter?”

Sure enough, the firing of the shell is greeted by a tall dude with a long black beard (in another context he might have been mistaken for a hippy—or a member of the Taliban) yelling, “The South shall rise again.” Still, at least it’s only one dude, and he gets some lip from a presumed “Yankee” woman nearby who snarls, “Get over it—y’all lost.”

The keynote speaker is the conservative Charleston state senator, Glenn McConnell, a devoted Civil War buff. McConnell’s speech attempts to reconcile some of the event’s contradictions, defending South Carolina’s right to secede in 1860, but celebrating the eradication of slavery. He talks up the shared culture of Southern blacks and whites, with no reference to the hundred years between the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

The contradictions cannot comfortably be contained in the commemoration of the rebel bombardment of Fort Sumter. They will surely dog the remaining four years of the Civil War sesquicentennial, especially in the South. I look forward to 2015 when we can maybe all just mourn the dead—the failure of politics, and the folly of war.

Simon Lewis
Charleston

Edward L. Ayers on Virginia’s Seccession

Today’s New York Times contains an essay by Edward L. Ayers on Virginia secession, which draws about a statistical analysis of Virginia’s secession debates. Excerpts follow:
http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/28/the-causes-of-the-civil-war-2-0/

The Causes of the Civil War, 2.0
By EDWARD L. AYERS http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/author/edward-l-ayers/

A new poll http://people-press.org/2011/04/08/civil-war-at-150-still-relevant-still-divisive/ from the Pew Research Center reports that nearly half of Americans identify states’ rights as the primary cause of the Civil War. This is a remarkable finding, because virtually all American textbooks and prominent historians emphasize slavery, as they have for decades. Even more striking, the poll shows young people put more stock in the states’ rights explanation than older people. The 38 percent of Americans who believe slavery was mainly to blame find themselves losing ground.

Of course, there’s no denying that states’ rights played an important role as the language of secession. But how might historians convey a more precise, comparative sense of the role slavery played in the states’ decision to secede? New computer-assisted techniques allow historians to draw clearer conclusions from immense amounts of data, including newspapers, public records and legislative proceedings. And few states left behind a better, more information-rich record of their secession debates than Virginia.

Virginia, a visitor from South Carolina during the secession crisis noted with exasperation, would “not take sides until she is absolutely forced.” In retrospect, it may seem surprising that Virginia took months to decide what to do. The state, after all, had more enslaved people than any other, became famous as the capital of the Confederacy, suffered more battles than anywhere else, and held to the memory of the Lost Cause with a special devotion, long after the war had ended.

But in 1861 it was by no means clear what Virginia might do. After South Carolina seceded in December 1860, quickly followed by six other states in the Lower South, Virginia’s General Assembly responded by calling for a special election in February 1861. Each county in the state would send delegates to a convention to debate the matter thoroughly and then recommend a course of action for the Commonwealth. The great majority of the 152 delegates arrived in Richmond that winter as Unionists, expecting to find a way to save the nation, the state and slavery. Virginia’s convention debated until April – so long, in fact, that secessionists built bonfires of protest in the streets of the city.

The weeks of debate in Richmond were transcribed by local reporters and then gathered and edited in 1965, totaling nearly 3,000 pages. Historians have long mined this record for material to support a wide range of arguments, but until recently it has been impossible to assess the debates as a whole – to measure, for example, exactly how often and in what contexts delegates invoked various words and phrases.

New computer-assisted tools and techniques can find and evaluate patterns of language and emphasis, otherwise hard to see, among those debates. Researchers at the University of Richmond http://dsl.richmond.edu/ have developed a computerized text that allows us to explore those hundreds of speeches over time and space, to find connections buried beneath parliamentary procedure and exasperating digressions. Those tools, available to the public online http://collections.richmond.edu/secession/ , also make it possible for people to explore the Virginia debates themselves, to address this enduring question with their own curiosity and ingenuity.

Some of the patterns in the speeches quickly undermine familiar arguments for Virginia’s secession. Tariffs, which generations of would-be realists have seen as the hidden engine of secession, barely register, and a heated debate over taxation proves, on closer examination, to be a debate over whether the distribution of income from taxes on enslaved people should be shared more broadly across the state. Hotheads eager to fight the Yankees did not play a leading role in the months of debates; despite the occasional outburst, when delegates mentioned war they most often expressed dread and foreboding for Virginia. Honor turns out to be a flexible concept, invoked with equal passion by both the Unionist and secessionist sides. Virtually everyone in the convention agreed that states had the right to secede, yet Unionists in Virginia won one crucial vote after another.

The language of slavery is everywhere in the debates. It appears as an economic engine, a means of civilizing Africans, an essential security against black uprisings and as a right guaranteed in the United States Constitution. Secessionists and Unionists, who disagreed on so much, agreed on the necessity of slavery, a defining feature of Virginia for over 200 years.

The language of slavery, in fact, became ever more visible as the crisis mounted to the crescendo of secession in mid-April. Slavery in Virginia, delegates warned, would immediately decay if Virginia were cut off from fellow states that served as the market for their slaves and as their political allies against the Republicans. A Virginia trapped, alone, in the United States would find itself defenseless against runaways, abolitionists and slave rebellions.

But the omnipresence of the language of slavery does not settle the 150-year debate over the relative importance of slavery and states’ rights, for the language of rights flourished as well. The debate over the protection of slavery came couched in the language of governance, in words like “state,” “people,” “union,” “right,” “constitution,” “power,” “federal” and “amendment.” Variants of the word “right,” along with variants of “slave,” appear once for every two pages in the convention minutes. When the Virginians talked of Union they talked of a political entity built on the security and sanction of slavery in all its dimensions, across the continent and in perpetuity.

Contrast this with white Republicans in the North, for whom the real issue was the threat slaveholders presented to the nation. For too long, Republicans argued, slaveholders had overridden popular majorities at home and in the United States as a whole, dragged the country into war, and corrupted the Supreme Court, the presidency and the Senate. The Republicans pointed out that only a quarter of white Southerners owned even a single slave and that the rest of Southern whites suffered from the dominion of slaveholders.

But the Republicans miscalculated, underestimating the unanimity of white Southerners, whatever their other divisions, over slavery. Entire states, not merely individuals, possessed and were possessed by slavery. Secessionists and Unionists in Virginia sought to protect the single greatest unifying interest in the state – enslaved labor – with the single language they possessed for doing so, a language of political right. The South sought to protect slavery’s interests in the only way available to them, through shifting their allegiance to a new federal system, the Confederate nation.

In short, the records of the Virginia secession debate demonstrate how the vocabularies of slavery and rights, entangled and intertwined from the very beginning of the United States, became one and the same in the secession crisis. Virginians saw themselves as victims, forced into action. Walter Leake, a delegate from Goochland County, lamented that “Northern fanaticism” had brazenly claimed “the power of the Federal Government for the purpose of advancing their selfish interests, and not for the purpose of saving the Constitution or advancing the rights and interests of all.”

The “disease which has called together this convention,” Leake lamented, was the North’s fixation on slavery. That fixation was not a mere “derangement; it is chronic, it is deep-seated,” and it must come to an end. “It is necessary for the Northern people to correct their sentiments upon the subject of slavery, it is necessary that they should abstain from intermeddling with the institution before any harmony or quiet can be restored.” No one could doubt who, or what, was to blame for the crisis of the Union.

Lincoln’s call for non-seceding states to contribute militia to put down the rebellion in South Carolina after the firing on Fort Sumter forced a choice. Virginia, willing to stand aside while the Union was dismantled, would not raise its hand against the “subjugation” of a “sister” slave state. If the federal government could coerce South Carolina it could coerce Virginia. The call for troops drove a choice between the North and the South and the secessionists seized that moment to push Virginia into disunion.

Perhaps, given new tools and perspectives, Americans can change the focus of our arguments about the “primary cause” of the Civil War. If the North fought to sustain the justice, power and authority of the federal government, the corollary, many assume, must be that the South fought for the opposite, for the power of the states.

But the equation did not balance in that way: the North did not fight at first to end slavery, but the South did fight to protect slavery. It is vital that we use the tools newly available to us to grasp this truth in its immediacy and complexity, before it fades even further from view.

Edward L. Ayers is the president and a professor of history at the University of Richmond. His book “In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America” http://books.wwnorton.com/books/In-the-Presence-of-Mine-Enemies/ won the Bancroft Prize.

Company I, 54th Massachusetts Reenactment Regiment

On Monday, July 18, 2011, Civil War reenactors will commemorate the 148th anniversary of the Assault on Battery Wagner. Volunteer reenactors from Company I, 54th Massachusetts Reenactment Regiment will honor the men that participated in that historic battle on July 18, 1863. The event will occur on Morris Island, SC and the public is invited to attend.

The boat for the one-hour event will leave from the Charleston Maritime Center (10 Wharfside Street, downtown Charleston) at 3:00 pm, and return at 5:00 pm. Make your reservations by calling Joseph McGill at (843) 408-7727. Participants should arrive thirty minutes before their reserved time. The cost of the boat ride and visit to the island is $25.00.

The event is sponsored by Company I, 54th Massachusetts Reenactment Regiment.

How Can South Carolina Move Beyond the Civil War?

For Immediate Release
April 6, 2011

South Carolina ETV’s “The Big Picture” Seeks Common Ground
Columbia, SC…

Thursday, April 21 at 7 p.m., South Carolina ETV’s “The Big Picture” brings together a diverse array of organizations that rarely share the same stage to discuss how we commemorate the 150 th anniversary of the Civil War, and how we make peace with this chapter in our history and move past it.

Among the guests appearing on the show are:
Mark Simpson, SC Commander, Sons of Confederate Veterans∙
Jannie Harriot, SC African American Heritage Commission∙
Eloise Verdin, President, SC Daughters of the Confederacy∙
Blake Hallman, Ft. Sumter Ft. Moultrie Trust∙
Michael Allen, National Park Service∙
Eric Emerson, South Carolina Archives and History
Lonnie Randolph, South Carolina Branch President, NAACP

Hosted by Mark Quinn, The Civil War: “Finding Common Ground” presents a civil discussion that seeks to find agreement from seemingly opposing groups on many of the divisive issues surrounding South Carolina’s role in this dark chapter in our nation’s history.

The conversation will continue on Friday, April 22 at 1 p.m., with “ The Big Picture on the Radio,” heard on ETV Radio’s news stations.

Re-broadcasts of the television program will air on the following schedule:
ETV-HD:Sunday, April 24 at 12 noon
The SC Channel:Sunday, April 24 at 10 a.m.
ETV World:Sunday April 24 at 4 p.m.
Tuesday, April 26 at 4:30 p.m.
Friday, April 29 at 4:30 p.m.

Civil War Sesquicentennial

As the anniversary of the bombardment of Fort Sumter edges ever closer, these two recent accounts of the events immediately leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War might be of interest.

“Fort Sumter: The Civil War Begins,” Smithsonian

(our own Bernie Powers is quoted in this one, as is the Executive Director of the CLAW Program, Vernon Burton)
“The Choice Is Charybdis,” Opinionator Blog, New York Times
Also, the College’s Division of Marketing and Communication made a video recording some of the comments made during the panel on memory of the War that closed out the CLAW conference just before Spring Break. You can view the video on YouTube.