The First Memorial Day

David Blight recounts the story of the first Memorial Day.

David Blight reminds us, on this day of remembrance, of what the first Memorial Day was about.

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.

Yes they were. Don’t let the defenders of the slavemongering secessionists of the Confederacy tell you any different. The Confederate cause wasn’t merely treason against the government of the United States; it was treason against the ideal of the United States as the nation where “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The Confederacy explicitly aligned itself against this notion – believing instead that white supremacy was the natural order and the cause of equality was something to be earnestly fought against.

Then after they lost, they began a decades long campaign to obscure and cover-up the truth of the cause for which they fought. They trotted out tariffs and taxes and other illusory notions. Anything to hide the truth that the Confederates explicitly went to war to build a nation “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

Which is why it’s important, on this day of days, to remember the Union cause, and why it was just. It was a defense of a nation that was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” against those who would tear it down.

Link via Ta-Nehisi Coates

FILED UNDER: Education
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. James Joyner says:

    Slavery was the proximate cause of the war, which was fought over secession. Lincoln explicitly rejected making it a war about ending slavery until well into the fighting, when doing so was useful in keeping the Brits out. Further, the notion that “the Negro was the equal of the white man” was hardly embraced by the North, either at the time of the war or for decades thereafter.

    The South has indeed airbrushed the politics of the war. But so has the North, retroactively making the fight some noble effort to secure justice for the black man. It simply wasn’t.

  2. @James:

    The South has indeed airbrushed the politics of the war. But so has the North, retroactively making the fight some noble effort to secure justice for the black man. It simply wasn’t.

    While the North did not wage a war to free the slaves, the fact of the matter is that the CSA was, in fact, founded to perpetuate slavery. This is a fact inadequately acknowledged here in the South, as I know you well know.

    Certainly slavery and racism is not solely a Southern sin, but rather a national one, and that, too, has to be acknowledged.

  3. Alex Knapp says:

    James,

    The cause of abolition was embraced by a large minority of the pro-Union cause, and the Republican Party was explicitly the party of abolition. By war’s end, a majority of Northerners had embraced emancipation. In the years that followed the War, Republicans actively worked towards a pro-equality agenda, which included de-segregating the Federal government. Even the Major League had black players in the late 1800s. It was in the early 1900s that the “South rose again” – bringing white supremacy back into vogue and culminating in Woodrow Wilson’s re-segregation of the Federal government and his support of the KKK.

  4. Rick Almeida says:

    While the North did not wage a war to free the slaves, the fact of the matter is that the CSA was, in fact, founded to perpetuate slavery.

    This simply can’t be said enough.

  5. James Joyner says:

    There would have been no secession or Civil War without slavery. My only point is that ending slavery wasn’t Lincoln’s war aim until late, when it became politically convenient.

    And the move to provide equality for blacks was as punitive as it was egalitarian. After all, they didn’t live in the north. The migration of blacks to the industrial cities outside the South quickly led to a non-Southern version of Jim Crow.

  6. sam says:

    “My only point is that ending slavery wasn’t Lincoln’s war aim until late, when it became politically convenient.”

    I’d say, rather, when he saw that it was politically necessary, because, as Ta-Nehisi Coates and others, including Prof. Bright, have pointed out, the South was not a society where slavery was a legal institution, it was a slave society. The Union had no real hope of enduring as long as that institution, and the society erected upon it, endured. Slavery had to be destroyed.

  7. ponce says:

    There would have been no secession or Civil War without slavery.

    Would there have been a Civil War if the South hadn’t attacked Ft. Sumter?

  8. michael reynolds says:

    The north was very nearly as racist as the south. And it’s true that a big part of northern opposition to the extension of slavery into new states was a fear that blacks — not slaves per se, but blacks — would end up as part of previously lilly white communities.

    But none of that justifies the south, or the CSA, or diminishes the profound evil of slavery, or excuses the flying of Confederate flags. None of that excuses the disgusting sentimentality and self-pity of so many southerners who still play the victim. Every dead soldier, north and south, died because rich white southerners, self-styled aristocrats, had their wealth tied up in slaves.

    Today no one in the north celebrates the white race riots in New York or similar events around the country.

    I wish people had a more nuanced understanding of the north’s morally ambiguous position, but unjustified Yankee assumptions of moral clarity do not in any way excuse the south wallowing in nostalgia for what was one of the two great crimes of the United States.

    This is the nation that carried out a rolling genocide against native Americans, and it is the nation that enslaved people simply on the basis of skin color. Those aren’t the only rotten things we’ve done, (The Mexican-American war, The betrayal of Cuba and atrocities in the Philippines, the internment of Japanese-Americans,) but genocide and slavery are the two top-billed crimes — especially egregious because we were not, after all, the Mongols or the Huns. We were the children of Washington and Jefferson and we knew better.

    It’s possible to respect the southern soldier as a soldier — as one might respect soldiers in the Wehrmacht. But they fought in an evil cause. Their flags should not be flown, their stories should not be sanitized, and those in the south that have a hard time coping with reality deserve contempt.

  9. ponce says:

    We were the children of Washington and Jefferson and we knew better.

    Washington killed Indians and Jefferson had slaves.

  10. PD Shaw says:

    While I like Blight’s book, which this is essentially a condensed passage from, I think he skirts with revisionism in this section.

    1. Widows and orphans were honoring their dead, placing flowers on graves, well before 1865. Blight is making the case that earlier examples were informal, though in reality what happened in Charleston preceded formal governmental recognition for the holidays after the War.

    2. The notion of “founding” Memorial Day, exaggerates the type of influence recently freed African-American slaves would have possessed. Blight’s rediscovery of this history was a result of archival research, not widely dispersed newspaper accounts that encouraged other communities to imitate.

    3. And, of course, what Blight rediscovered was James Redpath’s claim to have organized the First Memorial Day. Redpath, a white man, was the director of Freedmen’s education along this section of the coast. I think Blight believes Redpath exaggerated his role, but Blight seems to take things in the other direction to de-emphasize any role for whites for the sake of the beautiful symbolism.

  11. Mr. Prosser says:

    I think whites de-emphasized their role on purpose. At Ta-Nehesi Coates’s site there are two extra paragraphs at the end which Alex did not include in his post:
    “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.”

  12. PD Shaw says:

    Mr. Prosser, these passages are essentially drawn from Blight’s book, Race and Reunion, but Blight edited the passages for the piece. Compare this passage from the book:

    After the dedication, the crowds gathered at the Race Course grandstand to hear some thirty speeches by Union officer, local black ministers, and abolitionist missionaries, all chaired by James Redpath, the director of freedmen’s education in the coastal region. Picnics ensued around the grounds and in the afternoon, a full brigade of Union infantry, including the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts and the Thirty-fifth and 10th U.S. Colored Troops, marched in double column around the martyrs’ graves and held a drill on the infield of the Race Course.

    With this passage in the editorial:

    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.

    Blight clearly edited the passage, not merely for the length of the editorial, but to reduce the role of whites from the narrative either by (a) eliminating the white speakers, (b) de-emphasizing the post-dedication events, and (c) making the contribution of “Colored Troops” more unique than it was.

    As I said, I like the book, but Blight’s conclusions seem to be motivated by one of the important take-aways from the book: So long as memory of the war was focussed on battles and veterans, slaves were removed from the central narrative, leading to collective amnesia.

  13. Mr. Prosser says:

    I think we’re talking at cross-purposes here. Without a doubt there had to be white participation at the May dedication. It is in the ensuing years that any Memorial Day celebration history was damped down. According to Wikipedia the cemetery was removed in 1871 and the bodies reburied at Beaufort National Cemetery. The land became a park named for former Confederate general and SC governor Wade Hampton III and is still called that today.

  14. G.A.Phillips says:
  15. PD Shaw says:

    Mr. Prosser you responded to me, and I was responding to Blight’s piece. It’s one that you read realizing that the author knows his material and is well-steeped in the details, but you also realize he is telling only one side of a more complicated series of events.

    And then I realize that the reason I know this to be true is that I read Blight’s book, which presents a more complicated past, including one in which white northerners share complicity. Let me add one more detail from the book. The archway didn’t mere say “Martyrs of the Race Course.” It said:

    Sympathizing hands have cleared away the weeds, and placed over the entrance an inscription that must bring shame to the cheek of every Southern man who passes: ‘The Martyrs of the Race Course.’

    Anybody shocked the cemetery was moved?