Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Memory and Memorial Day

Last year, Yale historian David Blight published a moving essay on the birth of Memorial Day at the end of the Civil War. It's worth reading again on the anniversary of the first Memorial Day celebration, held on May 1, 1865. Holidays are supposed to be times to remember. But, as the history of Memorial Day suggests, they are just as often times to forget. The following, based on Blight's retelling, shows just what is at stake when remembering and forgetting.

The first Memorial Day celebration took place in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865. The city that started the Civil War with the firing on Fort Sumter lay in ruins at the end of the conflict. In the last year of the war, Confederate soldiers had turned the city's race track into a makeshift prison for Union soldiers. Where previously rich white planters had gathered in a conspicuous display of the wealth extracted from the labor of exploited slaves, there stood another symbol of the Confederacy. In the year of its operation, more than 250 northern soldiers died of illnesses related to exposure, malnutrition, and starvation. The Southern surrender at Appomattox in early April of 1865 left the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club empty except for a hastily constructed mass-grave dug by retreating Confederates.

Union Cemetery at Washington Race Course
After news of the surrender spread, some 28 black workmen, mostly former slaves living in Charleston, took it upon themselves to re-bury the Union dead. They built a proper cemetery. Lined it with a whitewashed picket fence. And on the archway over the entrance wrote the words "Martyrs of the Race Course." Then on May 1, 1865, black Charlestonians, along with white missionaries, soldiers, and aid workers held a memorial celebration on the grounds of the slaveholders' former race course.

Over 10,000 people marched that day. The parade was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren: boys and girls who had previously been kept by law from learning to read and write were the corporeal embodiment of the promise of a new south. They were followed by women bearing flowers, wreaths, and crosses to honor the dead. Black men, civilians marching en masse and in orderly martial cadence were next. Finally, federal troops, both black and white -- soldiers in the great war to end slavery -- marched onto the field. All of them understood the powerful symbolism of a celebration by former slaves to honor soldiers of the war to end bondage, held at a the very site of slave aristocracy's power, a southern pleasure ground-turned Confederate prison. To the participants that day, according to Blight, the ceremony was an the Independence Day celebration for the Second American Revolution. What's the Second American Revolution? How about, in Walter Johnson's words, the largest successful slave rebellion the world has ever known.

Eventually, both Northerners and Southerners would hold memorial day celebrations in the spring time, when the flowers to commemorate the fallen soldiers were as abundant as veterans' graves. And the meaning -- of both memorial day and the war itself -- would be lost to the nation's collective amnesia that set in over race and slavery. Southerners claimed the day to honor the valiant manhood of fallen Confederates. Northerners would drop the racial meaning of the war in favor of the whitewashed Southern version of a "tragic-but-honorable" conflict. And black Americans, both North and South, their contribution to the war, and to memorial day, would be scrubbed from the history for generations.

Hampton Park (formerly Washington Race Course)
The Charleston race track is all but gone except for an oval-shaped path in a large public park in a tony section of Charleston. In a symbolic act of reclamation, the park is now called Hampton Park, named for former confederate general Wade Hampton. Hampton became a white supremacist politician who won the bloody 1876 gubernatorial election with the help of a home-grown South Carolina terrorist organization known as the Red Shirts, whose brand of political violence looked much like another southern terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan. His victory marked the end of "Reconstruction," the North's the ten-year attempt to bring racial justice to the former slave states. 1876 also marked the beginning of a New South shaped in the distorted and twisted image of the old, racial segregation upheld by violent lynching, and a return to the pre-war order of white over black. In many ways Hampton's election, and others like it across the south in 1876, closed a door for years to come on the liberation promised by the war.


Guillermo Sanchez-Vela said...

Wow! I never knew how much Memorial Day evolved from its original meaning.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting!! Thank you for the article. I will now start to try to organize a movement to change the name of Hampton Park. I would however like to correct you slightly in that Hampton Park is, comparatively for historic Charleston, not a "tony" neighborhood but rather a mix of various income levels, ages, and races. It is an imperfect but fitting example of the new new south in which many of us judge one another by one's character, of that I'm proud.