The wound inflicted: Memorial Day, reconciliation, and a rebuke

From John Hennessy:

For fifteen years after the creation of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, local Memorial Day observances for the Union dead were commonly organized and led by Fredericksburg’s African-American community. Indeed, as Donald Pfanz has pointed out in his soon-to-be published history of the creation of the National Cemetery, in 1871 the Memorial Day ceremony included both black and white participants–a rare phenomenon that provoked rage in the local community. Years later, the Free Lance published a bitter remembrance of that day (the editorial in fact reveals more about white attitudes in 19th century Virginia than it does about the Memorial Day in question):

Some twenty years ago on the 30th of May, Decoration Day, a few colored people, a scattering crowd of men, women, and children, headed by a forlorn white man in the person of a postmaster or deputy collector of internal revenue, and preceded by a wheezy band of dilapidated instruments blown by unskilled players, use to straggle out to the National Cemetery and scatter a few faded flowers over the graves. The white people looked on in disgust and contempt, and many refused to give the small darkey flowers for the ceremony. It was a pitiful sight, an honor sought to be paid by those who scarcely knew what honor meant, to the dead, in a land that regarded them as occupying dishonorable graves.

Still, the efforts by the local Black community to commemorate continued unabated until 1884. That year, the quest for national reconciliation overawed local African-Americans’ determination to honor and remember the Union dead. The episode is Blight’s Race and Reunion in microcosm–a vivid example of how the desire for reconciliation apparently helped separate African-Americans (indeed all Americans) from the emancipationist legacy of the war.

A small contingent of the Grand Army of the Republic came to Fredericksburg in 1884, intent on honoring the Union dead in the National Cemetery and decorating the graves. As a gesture of reconciliation, the GAR invited local Confederate veterans to participate. The apparent condition: local blacks would be excluded from the ceremonies. Union veteran Joseoph O. Kerbey remembered encountering a Confederate veteran on the streets of Fredericksburg and discussing the arrangement.

In a neat little talk, he explained that the members of the M. F. Maury Camp of Confederate Veterans, learning that four Federal soldiers were in town, of which I was one, desired to learn their wishes in the matter of the Confederate camp, offering their united services in assisting the four Federals in decorating the graves of the Federals in the National cemetery on Marye’s Heights, and adding that their services were tendered gladly to this end; though they preferred not to be associated with the mob of colored people, who had been in the habit of making a picnic out of the day.

Kerbey added that the offer was “prompted by the noblest of motives of friendship, loyalty and charity,” and was accepted by the superintendent of the National Cemetery, Major Andrew Birdsall.  [Joseph Orton Kerbey, On the War Path:  A Journey Over the Historic Grounds of the Late Civil War (Chicago, 1890), pp. 160-61.]

The local paper, the Daily Star, rejoiced at the change. The paper proclaimed that “for the first time since the war there was witnessed here on Friday last an appropriate decoration of the graves of Federal soldiers.”  The writer continued:

As a Confederate soldier we rejoiced in witnessing the spectacle of the Blue and the Gray jointly engaged in this patriotic labor of love.  Heretofore the decoration of these graves has been done by colored men, women and children, and we are sure the absence of these from the ceremonies on Friday last was not only gratifying to the ex-Confederates, but also to the ex-Federal soldiers.

This rejoicing at the absence of African Americans from the story seems to mark a turning point in the local African-American community’s relationship with the National Cemetery and, indeed, perhaps the Civil War. While Blacks held a few straggling commemorative events at the cemetery over the coming years, by the end of the century virtually all commemorative activity by the local Black community had shifted to Shiloh Cemetery–an all-Black cemetery on Littlepage Street. Since then, the chasm between the Black community, the war, and its bequest of emancipation has only grown, an ongoing legacy of institutionalized racism and the nation’s quest for rapid reconciliation.

Nine years later, on Memorial Day 1893, a writer in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance (one of two predecessors to today’s Free Lance-Star) marveled at the reconciliation of the nation: “The prejudices of war are withering in the sunlight of prosperity. The hates of the past are dying as the hopes of the future are born.” He went on to describe the ceremonies of that Memorial Day–members of the Union GAR placing flowers picked by Southern women on Union graves. His conclusion serves as a powerful leitmotif for a nation in transition–politically and socially:

The darkey, left behind by the drifting tide of fast-changing sentiment,will look on [these ceremonies] in idle amazement as he wonders why this duty was ever left to him, and why he is not now called on to do his part, while each revolving year will add new throngs to those in the North and South willing to do their homage to the greatness of the American soldier, no matter what may have been the color of his uniform.

Few incidents more concisely and vividly convey both the intensifying momentum toward reconciliation and one of the prices paid for that reconciliation. There can be little doubt that at least here the exclusion of African-American Fredericksburgers from post-war rituals helped open a schism between history and the community most affected by that history–a schism that has distanced the Black community from the story of the Civil War at large, and by extension the emancipationist legacy of the war.

It remains a century-old wound whose repair represents one of the greatest of all challenges to public historians working in the field of Civil War history.

By the way, Keith Harris’s Cosmic America–a smart blog focused on the Civil War–has an interesting take on David Blight’s Race and Reunion.  Well worth reading.

9 thoughts on “The wound inflicted: Memorial Day, reconciliation, and a rebuke

  1. Thank you for this informative and well-written explanation of this affront to the Fredericksburg African American community. It sheds so much light on what I have witnessed in my 20-plus years in the city. Great and important work you have done!

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  3. John,
    This is a difficult, but worthwhile subject to explore. I read Keith Harris’s blog, but thought it too limited. In studying how the war was remembered and commerated, we cannot just look at what veterans thought and did. The larger society also exerts a great influence on memory. Witness the Ladies Memorial Associations and later the UDC and SCV. Those organizations did not experience the fighting, yet certainly influenced memory of the war. Gerald Linderman’s book Embattled Courage is a good place to start this discussion, but we can see it in our own times as well. The national discussion of our current wars sometimes has no real connection to the reality that exists overseas. I guess my point is that this discussion should not be self limited as the Harris blog suggests.

  4. You mention that African-Americans continued to hold a few “straggling events” at the National Cemetery after 1884. Couldn’t this suggest that the 1884 rebuke in the Fredericksburg paper really didn’t have that great an effect on the local black community? Couldn’t the decline in African-American participation in Memorial Day events by 1900 also in part be a reflection of declining interest in such activities on the part of postbellum generations who had no first-hand memory of the Civil War? (I pose the second question because of an article I recently found in the February 1899 issue of Leslie’s Weekly showing a neglected and overgrown C.S. Cemetery in Marietta, Ga., a town of roughly the same size as Fredericksburg.)

    • [As preface to this response, let me say that Keith was once a seasonal at the park and has gone on to a distinguished career in academia. Along with his then-cohort Peter Carmichael, Keith is perhaps the most luminous of the park’s seasonal alumni.]
      Keith: The rub here is untangling acts and trends, and discerning whether the act reflects the trend or the trend reflects the act. It’s the hardest thing to do in history. Your point is well taken, but I do think it’s a valid question too to ask whether the dimunition in interest in the African American community was a result of the takeover of commemorative events for the purposes of reconciliation? Like most things, I suspect the answer is BOTH generational (as you suggest) and circumstantial. I’d also offer that based on the source material available, at least the white community saw the 1884 rebuke as decisive, even if the black community did not. Thanks for the commment.

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