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In the aftermath of the Civil War, Americans struggled over how best to remember the war that taken hundreds of thousands of American lives. They confronted two interrelated problems: how best to memorialize the dead and the war they fought and what to do with the bodies of soldiers laying on battlefields and in field hospitals? Americans across the country constructed cemeteries and monuments to honor the dead. They also constructed narratives to explain why so many Americans had died. The creation of these new cemeteries and the need to remember led to the creation of Decoration Day (celebrated on May 30), the precursor to Memorial Day. The history of the holiday reveals how Americans attempted to remember and memorialize the Civil War. Their search for meaning had lasting consequences to the present.

Three competing narratives of the Civil War emerged as a result of Decoration Day celebrations. Two, held by African-Americans and white Northerners, viewed the Civil War as one of emancipation and ridding the United States of the sin of slavery. African-Americans had given birth to the idea of Decoration Day. Beginning in March 1865, African-Americans had taken to the streets to celebrate emancipation and the end of the war. On May 1, 1865, African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina held a parade featured African-American soldiers, speeches, and the decoration of soldiers’ graves with blooming flowers. In a city devastated by war, historian David Blight wrote, “The freedpeople of Charleston had converted Confederate ruin into their own festival of freedom.”[1] This African-American celebration marked the first “Decoration Day” commemorating the end of slavery and the victorious Northerners over the treasonous Confederates.

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In 1868, General John A. Logan, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, the powerful Union veterans’ organization, proclaimed May 30 as Decoration Day. Thanks to the efforts of women’s organizations, like the Northern Women’s Relief Corps who organized Decoration Day events, white Northerners placed flowers on the graves of soldiers and held ceremonies honoring the dead. They gathered at cemeteries and monuments across the country. Speakers remembered their fellow soldiers who had died in the war and implored their audiences to remember precisely why their comrades had given their lives. Following Lincoln’s logic from the Gettysburg Address, white Northerners believed that the war had given the nation, “a new birth of freedom.” Blight explained how in their Decoration Day celebrations, Northern speakers explained how Union “soldiers had died necessary deaths; they had saved the republic, and their blood had given the nation new life.”[2]

In the defeated South, white Southerners similarly created new cemeteries and erected monuments in honor of dead Confederates. As in the North, white women played a central role in memorializing the dead. In the early 1870s, former Confederate general Jubal Early, who had fled to Mexico rather than surrender, returned to home to Virginia and launched an effort to redefine the meaning of the war. Early portrayed southern soldiers as honorable and superior to their Northern opponents. Early appealed to ex-Confederates battling for political control over the South with African-Americans and their white allies. He justified secession as the act of honorable patriots against greedy Yankees who were plundering the South during Reconstruction.  As Blight explained, “His principal aim was not only to vindicate Southern secession and glorify the Confederate soldier, but also to launch a propaganda assault on popular history and memory.”[3]

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Eventually, white Northerners set aside the emancipatory narrative in order to facilitate a national reconciliation. Commemorations of the war became less about the causes and impacts of the war and more about celebrating the soldiers themselves. The bravery and fealty of Northern and Southern soldiers became worthy of celebration in and of themselves. As Blight explained Americans “came increasingly to exalt the soldier and his sacrifice, disembodied from the causes and consequences of the war.”[4] As a result, slavery became “an impersonal force in history, a natural phenomenon subject only to divine control and beyond all human responsibility… no Southerner fought in its defense and no Northerner died to end it.  It just went away, like a change in the weather.”[5] African-Americans, meanwhile, kept the legacy of the emancipatory war alive. In an 1877 speech on Decoration Day, Frederick Douglass reminded his audience that “There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget, and while today we should have malice toward none, and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason.”

In the recent debates over the Confederate monuments in New Orleans and displays of the Confederate flag, these same arguments have recurred. Flag and monument supporters cite the need to honor Confederates who “died for what they believed in.” This belief in their own cause makes Confederates worthy of admiration, supporters argue. While citing the beliefs of Confederates, their supporters never actually engage with what those beliefs were. As a result, the history of Decoration Day reminds us to not merely commemorate those who died in war, but to go a step further and consider why they died.

[1] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 67.

[2] Blight, Race and Reunion, 72.

[3] Blight, Race and Reunion, 79.

[4] Blight, Race and Reunion, 95.

[5] Blight, Race and Reunion, 92.

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