Healing, Heritage and History:
"Healing and History: Battlefields and the Problem of Civil War Memory"
Healing, Heritage and History
The National Park Service has a double burden in interpreting the history of the Civil War: We interpret the history of the war itself and its context, but we also preserve and interpret the history of many of the places where the war was fought. Many of these sites are filled with memorials and markers with evidence of the extraordinary continuing importance of the war in American life. Americans are continuously engaged with the war, with the memory of the war, and with the issues and legacies that the war has generated for us. Professors Blight and Linenthal offer their perspectives on the legacy of the Civil War as represented in monuments and battlefields.
Introduced by Richard Rabinowitz, President,
In this historic room today, the place where the Civil War's culminating tragedy took place, we probably all share a set of passions. We all love or appreciate the past. Sometimes we just have that passion for the pastness of the past; we love things that are old and speak to us from another age. Sometimes it is a passion for detail, for the wonderful stuff of research, the joy of discovery, the relationships of real people, real events, and real documents. Sometimes it is a passion for the truth. Perhaps we share a passion for language as well, for the story for the beauty and music of words. The other passion that we may share is the one we are about here today. It is probably our least holy and least sexy passion--our quest to understand context. It is hard to make context sound exciting, but without it we take the risk of having no history at all. Without context, we can end up with only objects to examine; we risk simple, single, causal explanations of the past. Or, if we do not pursue context, we may allow our students and our audiences to abandon explanation or interpretation altogether in favor of what we believe or wish to be accurate about the past. Of course, a tendency may exist in all of us to make the past what it needs to be in order to serve our present. But we have come here to challenge ourselves to broaden the contextual interpretations of the Civil War at the sacred sites where the conflict was fought.
My assignment is to speak about battlefields as sites of "healing" in American history. By looking at the history of how some of our battlefields became such important sites of commemoration we may better understand how they have been used as places of reconciliation and healing, sometimes at the expense of other kinds of learning. Frederick Douglass left us many challenges that might serve as clarion calls for our collective enterprise. On Memorial Day, 1878, Douglass gave a speech in Madison Square in New York City. It was one year after the political compromise of 1877 that had settled the sectional dispute over the presidential election of 1876. The "end" of Reconstruction, politically, had taken place and the nation seemed to be reconciling all over American culture. Douglass was deeply worried about the future of black civil rights, the freed people's liberties--the very meaning for which, in his view, the Civil War had been fought. He was worried that too many Americans were losing an understanding of the deepest context of the war and its consequences. The conflict of 1861-65, said Douglass, had been "a war of ideas, a battle of principles...a war between the old and the new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization." It "was not a fight," he insisted, "between rapacious birds and ferocious beasts, a mere display of brute courage and endurance, but it was a war between men of thought, as well as of action, and in dead earnest for something beyond the battlefield."
In 1961, the Southern poet and novelist, Robert Penn Warren, in his The Legacy of the Civil War, offered a similar challenge. "The Civil War is our felt history--history lived in the national imagination," said Warren. "Somewhere in their bones," he declared, most Americans have a storehouse of "lessons" drawn from the Civil War. Exactly what those lessons should be, and who should determine them, has been the most contested question in American historical memory at least since 1863. Among those lessons, wrote Warren, is the realization that "slavery looms up mountainously" in the story, "and cannot be talked away." But Warren acknowledged another lesson of equal importance for Americans of all persuasions: "When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten." Or, as William Dean Howells once put it: "What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending."
Americans faced an overwhelming task after the Civil War and emancipation: how to understand the tangled relationship between two profound ideas--healing and justice. On some level, both had to occur; but given the potency of white supremacy in nineteenth-century America, these two aims never developed in historical balance. One might conclude that this imbalance between the outcomes of sectional healing and racial justice were simply America's inevitable historical condition, and celebrate the remarkable swiftness of the reunion. But theories of inevitability--of irrepressible conflicts or irrepressible reconciliations-are rarely satisfying. Human reconciliations--when tragically divided people can unify again around aspirations, ideas, and the positive bonds of nationalism--are to be cherished. But sometimes reconciliations come with terrible costs, both intentional and unseen. The sectional reunion after so horrible a civil war was a political triumph by the late nineteenth century; but it could not have been achieved without the re-subjugation of many of those people the war had freed from centuries of bondage. This is the tragedy lingering on the margins and infesting the heart of American history from Appomattox to World War I.
For many whites, especially veterans and their family members, healing from the war was simply not the same proposition as doing justice to the four million emancipated slaves and their descendants. On the other hand, a simple justice, a fair chance to exercise their basic rights, and secure access to land and livelihood were all most blacks ever demanded of Reconstruction and beyond. The rub, of course, was that there were so many warring definitions of healing in the South, and the nation's collective memory had never been so shattered.
In the wake of the Civil War, there were no "Truth and Reconciliation" commissions through which to process memories of either slavery for blacks or the experience of total war for southern whites. Defeated white southerners and black former slaves faced each other on the ground, seeing and knowing the awful chasm between their experiences, unaware that any path would lead to their reconciliation. Yankee and Confederate soldiers would eventually find a smoother path to bonds of fraternalism and mutual glory. As is always the case in any society trying to master the most conflicted elements of its past, healing and justice had to happen in history and through politics. Americans have had to work through the meaning of their Civil War in the only place it could happen-in the politics of memory. As long as we have a politics of race in America, we will have a politics of Civil War memory, and likely a politics of how we forge that memory at our battlefields.
For Americans broadly, the Civil War has been a defining event upon which we have often imposed unity and continuity. As a culture we have often preferred its music and pathos to its enduring challenges, the theme of reconciled conflict to resurgent, unresolved legacies. The greatest enthusiasts for Civil War history and memory often displace complicated consequences by endlessly focusing on the contest itself. Over time, Americans have needed deflections from the deeper meanings of the Civil War. It haunts us still; we feel it, to borrow from Warren, but often do not face it.
In the half century after the war, as the sections reconciled, by and large, the races divided. Race was so deeply at the root of the war's causes and consequences, and so powerful a source of division in American social psychology, that it served as the antithesis of a culture of reconciliation. The memory of slavery, emancipation, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments never fit well into a developing narrative in which the Old and New South were romanticized and welcomed back to a new nationalism, and in which devotion alone made everyone right, and no one truly wrong in the remembered Civil War. Persistent discussion of the "Race Problem" across the political and ideological spectrum throughout the late nineteenth century meant that American society could not easily remember its "Civil War problem," or a "Blue-Gray problem." Battlefields served particularly well as the places where this separation in memory became most explicit; no "race problem" was allowed to invade the increasingly mystical reconciliation of the" Blue" and the "Gray" on the landscapes that the aging veterans had rendered sacred.
In a popular novel, Cease Firing (1912), the Southern writer Mary Johnston, a Virginian imbued with "lost cause" tradition and a determination to represent its complexity, imagined a dialogue that may have captured the memory most Americans-then and even now-want to embrace about the Civil War. On the last page of the book, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia is retreating west toward its final collapse and surrender at Appomattox Court House in the last week of the war. The April breezes are not yet warm and the rivers to be forded still run cold. One Confederate soldier asks another what he thinks it all means. "I think that we were both right and both wrong," says the veteran of many battles, "and that, in the beginning, each side might have been more patient and much wiser. Life and history, and right and wrong and minds of men look out of more windows than we used to think! Did you never hear of the shield that had two sides and both were precious metal?"
There was, of course, no lack of honor on either side in that fateful surrender at Appomattox in 1865. And Johnston captured an honest soldiers' sentiment that had reverberated down through veterans' memory for decades. But outside of this pathos and the endearing mutuality of sacrifice among soldiers that came to dominate national memory, another process was at work-the denigration of black humanity and dignity, and the attempted erasure of emancipation from the national narrative of what the war had been about. That other process led the black scholar and editor, W. E. B. Du Bois, to conclude in the same year as Johnston's novel that "this country has had its appetite for facts on the Negro problem spoiled by sweets." Deflections and evasions, careful remembering and necessary forgetting, and embittered and irreconcilable versions of experience, are all the stuff of historical memory.
Have Civil War battlefields been sites of healing and reconciliation? Well, over time, in a variety of ways, they have become just that in our national culture. But at first, they were places of death and destruction, graveyards and sites of haunted memory, for both the victors and the vanquished. In the immediate wake of the war the battlefields, in combination with devastated Southern cities, made America for the first time, a land with ruins. Unlike the haunting, destroyed abbeys of the English Civil War of the seventeenth century or Rome's ancient, majestic city of ruins, America's destruction was brand new-new, but instantaneously historic, and, therefore, at many battlefields and burial grounds, sacred. Americans were now a people with so much bloody history that the United States would forever be a modern society, burdened by a historic landscape-full of sites it would have to memorialize, romanticize, and even explain.
No one understood this better than defeated white Southerners; but their ruins inspired different reactions, depending on time and perspective. In October 1865, just after his release from a five-month imprisonment in Boston, former Confederate Vice-President, Alexander H. Stephens, rode a slow train southward. In northern Virginia, he found that "the desolation of the country from Alexandria to near Charlottesville was horrible to behold." When Stephens reached northern Georgia, his native state, he was again shocked: "War has left a terrible impression on the whole country to Atlanta. The desolation is heart-sickening. Fences gone, fields all a-waste, houses burnt." As time passed during Reconstruction, other southerners, such as Father Abram Ryan, known as the "Poet Priest of the Lost Cause," found inspiration and spiritual renewal in the South's ruins. "A land without ruins is a land without memories," said Ryan. Through its battlefield landscapes, he imagined, the South would achieve its "consecrated cornet of sorrow," and with time win "the sympathy of the heart and of history." From such landscapes and from such sentiments, the defeated Confederacy did attain a kind of exotic and romantic niche in American popular imagination, an idea Tony Horwitz uncovered and may have immortalized in his Confederates in the Attic.
COLD HARBOR, VIRGINIA:
AFRICAN AMERICANS COLLECTING BONES OF SOLDIERS KILLED IN BATTLE
In the wake of the war, thousands of northern readers learned of the condition of the defeated South, its material and political condition, as well as its famous battlefields, from northern travel writers. In The South: A Tour of Its Battlefields and Ruined Cities (1866), the novelist and poet John T. Trowbridge wrote the longest and most lyrical of such accounts. Trowbridge was one of the first battlefield tourists; he began his journeys in late August, 1865, at Gettysburg. Guided by the local civilian hero of the battle, John Burns, Trowbridge began his tour on Cemetery Hill. The supreme "stillness" of the summer day was broken only by the "perpetual click-click" sound of stonecutters preparing headstones in the soldiers' cemetery. The scene moved Trowbridge deeply; it was already "the time-hallowed place of the dead." He felt an "overpowering sense of the horror and wickedness of war" as he watched workmen still digging trenches and laying foundations for gravestones. He watched a veritable production line making stones lettered "Unknown," and felt compelled to contemplate the meaning of it all. Trowbridge could have been speaking for thousands of tourists in our own time who visit this most famous of American battlefields. "Grown accustomed to the waste of life through years of war," he wrote, "we learn to think too lightly of such sacrifices. 'So many killed,'-with that brief sentence we glide over the unimaginably fearful, and pass on to other details." Trowbridge demanded meaning from what he observed, not merely a feeling of the grandeur of the massive fight. But the meaning remained to him "vague and uncertain. It lies before us like one of those unidentified heroes," he said, "hidden from sight, deep-buried, mysterious, its headstones lettered Unknown."
Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg moved Trowbridge to ponder warily the nation's rebirth in that first summer after the war. "Will it ever rise?" he asked. The "uncounted thousands" of dead soldiers, he wrote, had "confronted, for their country's sake, that awful uncertainty." Strolling reflectively among the cemetery workmen, Trowbridge "looked into one of the trenches... and saw the ends of the coffins protruding. It was silent and dark down there." It was as though the elusive meaning of the war was in that trench; the coffin captured the observer as no abstract monument ever could. "I chose out one coffin from among the rest," remembered Trowbridge, "and thought of him whose dust it contained, your brother and mine, although we never knew him." The author tried to think of the man's childhood, his parents and homelife. But he could only conclude: "I could not know; in this world, none will ever know." Trowbridge altered his gaze, resumed his tour, and moved on to "other details" further South.
In Richmond and other places in Virginia, Trowbridge interviewed a number of former slaveholders and former slaves, and he began to "know" more and think more clearly about the meaning of the war. But so often at Civil War battlefields, Americans are still walking in Trowbridge's footsteps, observing and moved, but not knowing why so many men died on those beautiful landscapes. We cannot see the coffins protruding from the ground anymore, nor hear the stone-cutter's hammer; we need help in bridging the gap between the graves and their meanings. The most important forms of healing are probably those that come from a combination of emotion and knowledge that instructs and even surprises us, rather from that which confirms what we already want to believe.
Another remarkable series of travel accounts was the result of a three-month tour in 1869 by Russell Conwell, a 26-year-old Union veteran, writing for the Boston Daily Evening Traveler. Many of Conwell's twenty-five extensive letters were reflections on the battlefield sites or cemeteries he visited. Stunned at how "shattered and ruined" much of Virginia's countryside still appeared, he remarked that the war had "transformed the 'Garden of the South' into the 'Graveyard of America.'" He talked to farmers whose plows kept disturbing the remains of dead soldiers. Conwell entertained his readers with a combination of the sacred and the humorous. Who could resist his story of attending the wedding of a crippled Union veteran from New Hampshire and a young Virginia girl who, during the Peninsula Campaign, along with an old black woman, had nursed the badly wounded soldier to health? The rural wedding scene included a black fiddler providing music for this particular reconciliation among common folk. Conwell observed half-buried ruins and earthworks everywhere. Around old battlefields he encountered a steady stream of lead and bone hunters who sold their scrap findings to eke out a living. At Cold Harbor battlefield, he met "several Negroes with large sacks, collecting the bones of dead horses which they sold to the bone-grinders of Richmond."
When Conwell reached Charleston, South Carolina, he visited the remains of Fort Wagner on Morris Island. There he met an older black man who claimed to have been a member of the 54th Massachusetts and wounded in its famous charge of July 1863. The black veteran and his family lived in a "bomb-proof" nearby and made a living "digging for old iron in the sand." "The products of his industry," remarked Conwell, "reminded us of the stacks in a New England hay field. He sells it by the ton." In this image of the Reconstruction South in 1869, we are reminded that old battlefields can have deep and unexpected contexts. Before leaving the beach by the remains of Fort Wagner, Conwell described "old haversacks, belts, bayonet scabbards, and shoes" still strewn on the sand. At his feet, human skulls and bones rolled up in the surf. The skulls "lay grinning," he said, "and filled us with sad sensations, which still haunt our dreams. The sad and the beautiful, how strangely combined!" Conwell's Yankee partisanship flowed through as he departed. The whole scene, he believed, was a living memorial to "the cause of human freedom."
A visitor to today's battlefields will meet no veterans as bone-collectors, no skulls will wash up in the surf at his or her feet. We will not encounter actual haversacks from battle strewn on the ground. In the interpretation of battle sites, we may not be confronted with images or information about a black veteran scraping out a life in an old bomb-proof, collecting mounds of metal-we may never know what followed from those battles in the aftermath of the war, among whites and blacks, on the ground in the South. "The sad and the beautiful, strangely combined," Conwell put it aptly-it was always one of my own first reactions when I visited battlefields as a kid and as a young adult. But from the metaphors Trowbridge and Conwell provide-gazing at skulls, talking to black bone-collectors, and pondering the meanings of coffins at the Gettysburg cemetery-we ought to be able to imagine new ways to enrich the story, to broaden the historical meanings we take from these sacred sites.
During the first decade or so after the war, Civil War veterans on both sides tried to forge new lives. Veterans' organizations and reunions lagged until the late 1870s. Women, South and North, tended to lead memorial activity. But especially in the 1880s, battlefields increasingly became sites of regimental reunions, a growing industry of monument building, the object of detailed mapping (such as John Bachelder's life-long work at Gettysburg), and eventually a growing array of Blue-Gray reunions. Bitterness between Yankee and Confederate veterans could still emerge, especially over such issues as the possible return of battle flags, and the long-standing reticence of most ex-Confederates to return to Gettysburg at all.
But aging soldiers shared much in the Gilded Age; a kind of "culture of character" emerged as a core ideology that knit them together. Old soldiers tended to measure each other as preservers of an older, more wholesome society, uncorrupted by materialism, and rooted in individual honor. They came to see their war experience as a special shared possession, and the battlefields where they reassembled twenty or thirty years after the fact, as their own sites of healing. Upon his return to Gettysburg in 1884, Samuel Armstrong, a Union veteran and founder of the black college, Hampton Institute, recollected the agony of his battle experience. "Those days were full of horrible sights," he said. "Yet in all these sickening scenes there was, I think, no hatred; the malice and rascality engendered by war is at the rear. There is a certain mutual respect among those who accept the wager of battle." Armstrong may have underestimated the "hatreds" men felt at the moment of truth in battle. He had not yet read Edward Porter Alexander's memoir in which the former Confederate general wrote honestly about his joy in killing Yankees and seeing them dead on the ground. But in the mutuality of sacrifice, in the shared claim to a special realm of experience and manliness, in their obsessions for detail in preserving and mapping battlefields, veterans themselves became America's first Civil War "buffs." They began to transform those battlefields into places of sectional healing, though rarely if ever places of racial healing.
In 1888, George Kilmer, a member of the Abraham Lincoln post of the Grand Army of the Republic in New York published in Century Magazine a list of some twenty-four Blue-Gray reunions of one kind or another between 1881 and 1887. He then updated the list with three or four more he discovered from the 1870s. Kilmer believed these gatherings reflected a shared "faith" among soldiers that increased "business relations" and intersectional migration had helped foment these events. Some meetings consisted of southern and northern veterans' groups touring the other section's cities and being ceremonially received by their former foes. Some occurred in the aftermath of the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881. Some occurred at historical anniversaries such as the Bunker Hill centennial in Boston in 1875. But increasingly these reunions met at battlefields, often on anniversaries, such as at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and the Wilderness in Virginia and at Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia in October 1887.
At Gettysburg the early history of Blue-Gray fraternalism was mixed. A first attempt in 1874 was abandoned when it became clear that it was simply too early for soldiers to mingle at the scene of such sensitive memories. Reconstruction politics also delayed such fraternalism; as long as the "bloody shirt" was so useful on both sides in the struggles over the meaning of the war, Blue-Gray reunions were not easy to organize. Confederates were also deeply divided among themselves between Virginians and North Carolinians over the responsibility for defeat at Gettysburg. But by 1887, on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the battle, some 500 members of the Philadelphia Brigade veterans' organization met with some 200 survivors of Pickett's Division. They met in an elaborate ceremony in the town square to shake hands. Then after speeches acknowledging mutual valor, they gathered out at the "High Water Mark" where they had met in 1863 in some of the most celebrated combat of the war. They pitched tents and spent the night, exchanging stories, hats and mementos, including for a few, locks of hair. One reporter remarked that it was hard to tell who was from North or South.
All was not sweetness in Blue-Gray relations, however, especially when the Democratic President, Grover Cleveland, not a veteran, suggested the return of battle flags. An 1888 attempt at a larger reunion on the twenty-fifth anniversary was a disappointment. Some Union veterans were not yet ready to share the Gettysburg landscape with Confederates. "No God-knows-who-was-right bosh must be tolerated at Gettysburg," wrote the editor of a veterans' journal. "The men who won the victory there were eternally right, and the men who were defeated were eternally wrong." With time, though, an "everyone was right" bosh did overtake the practice of Blue-Gray fraternalism.
Sometimes reunions were explicitly organized for intersectional political and business dealings. On Memorial Day weekend in 1895, a huge Blue-Gray affair met in Chicago to unveil a large monument in Oakwood Cemetery to the 6,229 Confederate soldiers who had died during the war at the Camp Douglas prison compound. The event was the brainchild of John C. Underwood, a Kentucky Confederate veteran and business entrepreneur. Underwood's earlier efforts at such gatherings in Philadelphia in 1885 and Columbus, Ohio in 1889 had largely failed. But in 1890 he moved his "headquarters" to Chicago, and helped found the "Ex-Confederate Association of Chicago." Many surviving ex-Confederate generals were honored in receptions at the Palmer House hotel, including James Longstreet, Fitzhugh Lee, Wade Hampton (the latter two former governors of their states by then), and Stephen D. Lee of Mississippi. A crowd estimated at 100,000 participated in the parade and unveiling ceremonies, and Wade Hampton was the keynote speaker. Chicago papers gushed with admiration for the event. Even the progressive Inter-Ocean marvelled that "yesterday it mattered not who wore the blue or wore the gray."
Such spectacles were emotionally irresistible to most people. But other motives animated participants as well. The leader of the Chicago Citizens' Committee welcomed the Confederate soldiers in the interest of "closer commercial relations and business union... a larger degree of investment of capital [by the North] in the vast resources of the southern states." Responding for the Confederate veterans, Stephen Lee said: "We invite you again to invade us, not with your bayonets this time, but with your business. We want to hear in our land the voices of your industry...." But other themes had to be put to rest first. When Underwood himself spoke at the banquet, he declared the purpose of the reunion to be "harmonious forgetfulness." "It is not now profitable," he announced, "to discuss the right or wrong of the past...neither should the question be raised as to the morals of Massachusetts selling her slaves and South Carolina holding hers, nor as to the profit of merchandising the negro on the block in New York or for the sugar cane fields of the Mississippi coasts…." In this vision of Blue-Gray fraternalism, slavery was everyone's and no one's responsibility. America's bloody racial history was to be banished from consciousness; the only notions of equality were soldiers' heroism and the exchange of the business deal.
Later that same year (1895), one of the most spectacular reunions of the decade occurred at the dedication of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, September 18-20. An estimated 50,000 people attended, including the vice-president of the United States, Adlai Stevenson, numerous states governors and many surviving generals from both sides. Among the many speakers was General Lew Wallace, author of Ben Hur and the former governor of the Territory of New Mexico. Capturing the tone of the reunion, Wallace asked "Remembrance! Remembrance of what? Not the cause, but the heroism it invoked." And, Alabama Governor, W. C. Oates, a Confederate veteran, told his southern comrades to stand "proud," for "they fought for a just cause, which though lost, was partially won." Oates actually addressed slavery, though he acknowledged it was the "pandora's box of American politics." He painted a picture of benevolent masters fated to their lot. Cruelty existed in slavery, Oates admitted, but "the negroes simply passed through the fiery furnace of slavery to reach civilization, which was the only road by which they could have obtained it." Some veterans were thus willing to speak of the war's causes, contexts and meanings at battlefields, but often only in ways that fit neatly into the imperatives of an emerging white supremacist society.
One of the contexts for the Chickamauga reunion was that on the very same day in Atlanta, Booker T. Washington was delivering his "Atlanta Compromise" speech, urging black and white southerners to "cast down their buckets where they are." Washington electrified the nation's press and thousands of readers with perhaps the most important sectional reconciliation speech ever delivered, rooted, of course, in the futile dream that racial reconciliation could be forged in mutual economic progress.
Let me offer one further example of the uses of battlefields for national reconciliation. As it stood in the general American culture in the early twentieth century, Civil War memory never saw a more fully orchestrated expression than that at Gettysburg on the battle's fiftieth anniversary in July 1913. With their railway tickets paid for by the government, more than 53,000 veterans came to Gettysburg-both Blue and Gray. Veterans came from every state except two. The states and the federal government appropriated well over $2,000,000 to put on this remarkable festival of harmony and reconciliation. The reunion came off as a kind of public avowal of a glorious fight that led to greater national unity.
All the state governors, as well as many surviving officers, spoke during the four days of the reunion. Governor William Hodges Mann, himself a Confederate veteran, struck the keynote of the reunion. "We are not here to discuss the genesis of the war," he declared, "but men who have tried each other in the storm and smoke of battle are here to discuss the great fight. We came here, I say, not to discuss what caused the war of 1861-65, but to talk over the events of the battle as man to man." No time or space was allowed at the four-day spectacle for discussion of causes and consequences. There was no rhetoric about emancipation or the unresolved history of Reconstruction. Nor was there any consideration of the war's second great outcome by 1913-the nation's disastrous abandonment of racial reconciliation. The "Peace Jubilee," as the reunion was called, was a Jim Crow reunion. There is no evidence that any black veterans attended or were welcome in spite of what you see in episode eleven of Ken Burns's film series on the Civil War. So far as can be determined, there were no black veterans at the 1913 gathering of the Blue and the Gray. The only blacks in attendance were laborers who helped build the tent city, who constructed and cleaned the latrines, and who dispensed blankets to the white veterans. This stunning and photogenic gathering of old veterans, which was covered by the national and international press for several days, featured an enfeebled re-enactment by actual participants of part of Pickett's Charge and the familiar handshakes across the stone walls on Cemetery Ridge. There had never been such a spectacle of resolution and patriotism on this scale in America. "Thank God for Gettysburg, Hosanna!" proclaimed the Louisville Courier Journal. "God bless us everyone, alike the Blue and the Gray.... The world ne'er witnessed such a site as this. Beholding, can we say happy is the nation that hath no history."
At a time when lynching had developed into a social ritual of its own horrifying kind (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People counted 70 in 1913), and when the American apartheid had become fully entrenched, many black leaders and editors found the sectional love feast at Gettysburg more than they could bear. "A Reunion of whom?" asked the Washington Bee. Only those who "fought for the preservation of the Union and the extinction of slavery," or also those who "fought to destroy the Union and perpetuate slavery, and who are now employing every artifice... known to deceit... to propagate a national sentiment in favor of their nefarious contention that emancipation, reconstruction and enfranchisement are a dismal failure." Black responses to such reunions as that at Gettysburg in 1913 and a host of other similar events demonstrated how fundamentally at odds black memories were by then from the spirit and character of the national reunion. In that contradiction lay an American tragedy not yet fully told by 1913 and considered out of place at Blue-Gray reunions.
African American responses to the 1913 Gettysburg reunion were especially telling in the context of the Wilson administration's efforts that very summer to aggressively re-segregate federal agencies in Washington, D. C. Woodrow Wilson, just elected president in 1912, and inaugurated that spring of 1913, came to the Pennsylvania town on July 4, the last day of the reunion, to give his own Gettysburg address. Wilson did not really want to come; he wanted no part of this festival of sectional peace, and as the first southerner elected president since the Civil War, he wished not to have to test the politics of such an event. Up until about four days before the reunion he still planned not to attend. But one of his aides said to him in effect: "You don't get it; you don't quite understand what is going on up at Gettysburg. You need to be there."
President Wilson rode into Gettysburg by train, was quickly put into an open car, and whisked out to the battlefield where a huge tent awaited him, filled with some 12,000 of the veterans. He walked into the tent accompanied on either side by a Union veteran and a Confederate veteran, each holding their respective flags. In his brief speech, Wilson declared it "an impertinence to discourse upon how the battle went, how it ended," or even "what it signified." Wilson's charge, he claimed, was to comprehend what the fifty years since the battle had meant. His answer struck the mystic chord that most Americans were prepared to hear:
They have meant peace and union and vigor; and the maturity and might of a great nation. How wholesome and healing the peace had been! We have found one another again as brothers and comrades, in arms, enemies no longer; generous friends rather; our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten--except that we shall not forget the splendid valor; the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another; now grasping hands and smiling into each other's eyes. How complete the Union has become and how dear to all of us, how unquestioned, how benign and majestic, as state after state has been added to this, our great family of free men.
Wilson's great gift for ambiguity was in perfect form. The Civil War had thus become the "quarrel forgotten" on the statute books of Jim Crow America. A nation can have too much memory, but a nation can also forget too much.
Let me end with a reflection on Memorial Day. Let me reflect with you on the origins of this tradition. Perhaps for a moment we can try to broaden our very definition of a battlefield. Go with me to Charleston, South Carolina at the very end of the war in 1865. Charleston, of course, was the place where the war began, a city of enormous symbolic and strategic importance. During approximately the last eight months of the war the city was bombarded by Union artillery from around the harbor and from gunboats. For many blocks up from Battery Park, some of those magnificent mansions that make that city one of the most beautiful in North America, were all but destroyed. The city was evacuated on February 18, 1865 as most of the white population fled to the interior. Among the first troops to enter the town and march up Meeting Street, the main thoroughfare of Charleston, was the 21st U. S. Colored Infantry. Their commander, Lieutenant Colonel A. G. Bennett, accepted the formal surrender of the city from the mayor.
Black Charlestonians were the bulk of the population remaining in the city in those final weeks of the war. They had witnessed death all around them for many months, and they began to plan their own rituals of mourning and celebration. On March 3 a large crowd gathered in Francis Marion Square in the heart of Charleston. Thirteen black women elegantly dressed in the finest clothes they could find and representing, they said, the thirteen original states, presented General Quincy A. Gillmore, the Union commander, with a U.S. flag, a bouquet of flowers, and a fan for Mrs. Lincoln in Washington. On March 29, African Americans in Charleston organized an elaborate parade of some 4,000 people. The march, celebrating black freedom, included two wagons (floats). The first wagon rolled along carrying an auction block and an auctioneer selling two black women and their children. The second wagon contained a coffin labeled on its side: "Death of Slavery--Sumter Dug his Grave on the 13th of April, 1861." In this mock slave auction and victory parade the freed people of Charleston declared the meaning of the war. They drew a line of demarcation between past and present. These were days of awe and wonderment, of sorrow and gaiety. The freed people of Charleston had converted Confederate ruin into their own festival of freedom.
On April 14, a celebration took place out at the mouth of the harbor in Fort Sumter itself. Four years to the day after the surrender of the fort, General Robert Anderson returned to Charleston with many northern dignitaries to raise the flag he had lowered in 1861. Three thousand African Americans crammed on to the island fortress for the ceremony. In attendance were abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and President Lincoln's secretary, John G. Nicolay. Also among the throng were former abolitionist and writer, and now major in the Union army, Martin Delany, as was the son of Denmark Vesey, the leader of a slave rebellion who was executed in Charleston in 1822. The former slave and boat pilot, Robert Smalls, was nearby Fort Sumter aboard the Planter (which was filled with a contingent of freed people), the steamer he had commandeered and sailed out of Charleston to freedom during the war. The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher was orator of the day. The audience heard Beecher condemn South Carolina's secessionists to eternal damnation. Many in that special audience hoped for more guidance from Beecher about the confused and delicate questions of Reconstruction, but on that count they heard little in what unfolded as primarily a festival of victory, thanksgiving, and celebration. When hearing a regimental band play "John Brown's Body," Garrison, who two decades earlier had a price put on his life by the state of South Carolina, broke down and wept. Flowers were blooming everywhere amidst the ruins of Charleston; for so many, remembrance at this early date was but a fragrance full of warring emotions. As the flag reached its height on the staff in the fort, guns all around Charleston harbor opened up in a salute. The grand day ended that evening at a banquet in the city as Brigadier General Robert Anderson, who had surrendered the fort, among others, offered many toasts, some of which were to President Lincoln, who was that very night assassinated here in Ford's Theater in Washington. Thus the day that had begun with such jubilation ended with even greater tragedy.
During the next two weeks in Charleston, as elsewhere, mourning over Lincoln's death swept through the community of blacks and their Unionist and white abolitionist allies. Death required attention all over the land. "The dead, the dead, the dead...," as Walt Whitman lamented in one of his poems. If we really want to understand the deepest roots of reconciliation from the Civil War, it is somehow rooted in dealing with all the dead at the end of the bloody struggle. A Union quarter-master general's report shortly after Appomattox noted that only about one third of the Union dead in the war were interred in identifiable graves. The federal government instituted an elaborate program of locating and burying the Union dead all over the South in newly created national cemeteries, and by 1870, some 300,000 northern soldiers were re-interred in seventy-three national cemeteries, with 58% identified. Retrieval and recognition of the Confederate dead took much longer due to inadequate resources. Early Reconstruction policies had not extended the federal program of re-interment to Confederates. All of this death on the battlefield, as well as the deaths of thousands of soldiers in prisons, and hundreds of nameless freed people in contraband camps, presented an overwhelming psychological, spiritual, and logistical challenge of memorialization.
Charleston had more than its share of this burden. During the final year of the war, the Confederate command in the city had converted the Planters' Race Course (horse-racing track) into a prison. Union soldiers were kept in terrible conditions in the interior of the track, without tents or other coverings. At least 257 died from exposure and disease, and were hastily buried without coffins in unmarked graves behind the judge's stand of the Race Course. After the fall of the city, Charleston's blacks, many of whom had witnessed the suffering at the horse track prison, insisted on a proper burial of the Union dead. The symbolic power of the Planters' Race Course was not lost on the freed people. In conjunction with James Redpath and the missionaries and teachers among three freedmen's relief associations at work in Charleston, they planned a May Day ceremony that a New York Tribune correspondent called "a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before."
The "First Decoration Day," as this event came to be recognized in some circles in the North, involved an estimated 10,000 people, most of them black former slaves. During April, twenty-eight black men from one of the local churches built a suitable enclosure for the burial ground at the Race Course. In some ten days' labor, they constructed a fence ten feet high, enclosing the burial ground, and landscaped the graves into neat rows. The wooden fence was whitewashed and an archway was built over the gate to the enclosure. On the arch, painted in black letters, the workmen inscribed "Martyrs of the Race Course." At 9 o'clock in the morning on May 1 the procession to this special cemetery began as 3,000 black school children (newly enrolled in freedmen's schools) marched around the Race Course, each with an armload of roses and singing "John Brown's Body." The children were followed by 300 black women representing the "Patriotic Association," a group organized to distribute clothing and other goods among the freed people. The women carried baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses to the burial ground. The "Mutual Aid Society," a benevolent association of black men, next marched in cadence around the track and into the cemetery, followed by a procession of white and black citizens. All dropped their spring blossoms on the graves in a scene recorded by a newspaper correspondent: "When all had left, the holy mounds-the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them-were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen; and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond...there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy." While the adults marched around the graves, the children were gathered in a nearby grove, where they sang "America," "We'll Rally Around the Flag," and "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The official dedication ceremony was conducted by the ministers of all the black churches in Charleston. With prayers, the reading of biblical passages, and the singing of spirituals, black Charlestonians gave birth to an American tradition. In so doing, they declared the meaning of the war in the most public way possible-by their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade of roses and lilacs and marching feet-on the old planters' Race Course. One can only guess at which passages of scripture were read at the graveside on this first Memorial Day. But among the burial rites the spirit of Leviticus, chapter 25, was surely there: "For it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you... in the year of this jubilee ye shall return every man unto his possession."
After the dedication, the crowds gathered at the Race Course grandstand to hear speeches by Union officers, 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 54th Massachusetts and the 35th and 104th United States Colored Troops, marched in double column around the martyrs' graves, and held a drill on the infield of the Race Course. The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. They had created for themselves, and for us, the Independence Day of the Second American Revolution.
According to a reminiscence written long after the fact, "several slight disturbances" occurred during the ceremonies on this first Decoration Day, as well as "much harsh talk about the event locally afterward." But a measure of how white Charlestonians suppressed this founding from memory in favor of their own creation of the practice a year later came fifty-one years afterward, when the President of the Ladies Memorial Association of Charleston received an inquiry for information about the May 1, 1865 parade. A United Daughters of the Confederacy official wanted to know if it was true that blacks and their white abolitionist friends had engaged in such a burial rite. Mrs. S. C. Beckwith responded tersely: "I regret that I was unable to gather any official information in answer to this." In southern and national memory, the first Decoration Day was nearly lost in a grand evasion.
What we need to do in Charleston in the near future is dedicate a monument to this First Decoration Day. The oval of the old Race Course is still there in Hampton Park, adjacent to the Citadel. There are many other towns that have claimed pride of place for founding Memorial Day. The good people of Columbus, Mississippi, of Petersburg, Virginia, of Waterloo, New York, and other towns are all well-intentioned in their claims for the spring of 1866. But a year earlier, African Americans did as much to create this tradition as anyone else, and they did it first.
Let me end as I began. Frederick Douglass gave us the charge for this conference, for the very ideal we meet about today, in a speech during the war. "The Mission of the War," an address Douglass gave all over the North in 1863-64, was laced with the same essential argument about the Civil War as a re-invention of the American republic as that found in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. "A great battle lost or won," declared Douglass, "is easily described, understood, and appreciated. But the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection as well as observation to appreciate it." It was, after all, the "rebirth" of that nation that Abraham Lincoln had in mind when he spoke those words at Gettysburg about the "last full measure of devotion."
Suggestions for further reading:
Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass's Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
______. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Davis, William C. The Cause Lost; Myths and Realities of the Confederacy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.
Dennett, John Richard. The South As It Is, 1865-1866. Ed. by Henry M. Christian, 1866 Reprint edition, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. The Riddle of Death: Mortality and Meaning in the American Civil War. Thirty-Fourth Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture, Gettysburg College, 1995.
Foster, Gaines M. Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Horwitz, Tony C. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Pantheon Press, 1998.
Leonard, Thomas C. Above the Battle: War-making in America from Appomattox to Versailles. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Linenthal, Edward Tabor and Robert M. Utley. Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Logue, Larry M. To Appomattox and Beyond: The Civil War Soldier in War and Peace. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996.
McConnell, Stuart. Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865-1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
O'Leary, Cecelia. To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Reardon, Carol. Pickett's Charge in History and Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Savage, Kirk. Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Silber, Nina. The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Trowbridge, John T. The South: A Tour of Its Battlefields and Ruined Cities. 1866. Reprint edition, New York: Arno Press, 1969.
Warren, Robert Penn. The Legacy of the Civil War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.