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“The Offering We Bring…” Remembering the First Memorial Day

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“Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.” From Frederick Douglass’ Memorial Day Speech 1884

Memorial Day, at one time known as Decoration Day is one of our most sacred civil holidays that we celebrate in the United States, or at least it should be. It was a holiday born out of the shedding of the blood of about 600,000 American soldiers, from the North and the South in the Civil War, a singular event that still echoes in our history and in some sense defines who we are. The sad thing is that many; if not most Americans it is simply another holiday, a chance maybe to get a three day weekend at the end of the school year and beginning of summer vacation. This is so because we and our government dominated by business interests and our own wallets for decades knowingly made the decision to sacrifice of the teaching of history and heritage at the altar of “education” that “produces jobs.”

But the first observance of what we now know as Memorial Day is fascinating and it needs to be remembered. Frederick Douglass was absolutely right when he spoke the words that I began this article, and we need to remember the humble beginnings of this day which was first marked by recently freed slaves in Charleston South Carolina on May 1st 1865, barely two weeks after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and three weeks after the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. Their commemoration was for the most part forgotten as Charleston sought to remove the vestiges of any Union sacrifice within the city limits in the 1880s.

The acrid smell of smoke of the last battles of the American Civil War was still lingering over many towns and cities in the South on May 1st 1865.  Charleston South Carolina, the hotbed of secession was particularly hard hit during the war. In 1861 Cadets of the Citadel and South Carolina militia forces began the war with the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Union Forces laid siege to the city in late 1863, a siege which ended with the city’s surrender to Union forces on 18 February 1865. The day of the surrender was somewhat ironic. Charleston, the city most associated with the opening of the conflict surrendered to Union forces on the fourth anniversary of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy. By the time of its surrender much of the city had been destroyed by Union siege artillery and naval forces.

Charleston had also been the home of three of the Prisoner of War Camps. One was located in the Charleston City Jail and the other at Castle Pinckney which had been one of the ante-bellum U.S. Army installations in the city. A third camp was erected on the site of the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in 1864. This was an open air camp and Yale Historian David Blight wrote that “Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.”

By the end of the war most of the white population of the city had left and most of those remaining were recently freed slaves. After their liberation and the city’s occupation by Federal forces, which included the famous 54th Massachusetts as well as the 20th, 35th and 104th US Colored Troops Regiments, about 28 these recently liberated Black men went to work and properly reinterred these 257 Union dead on the raceway building a high fence around it. They inscribed “Martyrs of the Race Course” on an arch above the cemetery entrance.

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On May 1st over 10,000 Black Charlestonians gathered at the site to honor the fallen. Psalms, Scriptures and prayers were said, hymns were sung and many brought flowers. A parade of 2800 children covered the burial ground with flowers.  They were followed by members of the Patriotic Association of Colored Men and the Mutual Aid Society. This society’s members provided relief supplies to Freedmen and provided aid to bury those Blacks who were too poor to afford burial. More citizens followed many laying flower bouquets on the graves. Children then led the singing of The Star Spangled Banner, America and Rally around the Flag. The Brigade composed of the 54th Massachusetts and the 35th and 104th Colored Regiments marched in honor of their fallen comrades. Following the formalities many remained behind for a picnic.

Other communities established their own Memorial Day observances in the years following the war, but the event in Charleston was the first. The first “Official” commemoration was on 30 May 1868 when Union General John Logan who headed the veteran’s organization called The Grand Army of the Republic appealed to communities to honor the dead by holding ceremonies and decorating the graves of the fallen.

In the South three different days served a similar purpose.  In Virginia people commemorated the day on June 3rd, the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the Carolinas marked the day on 10 May, the birthday of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. In much of the Deep South the event was conducted April 26th, the anniversary of the surrender of General Joseph Johnson’s Army to General William Tecumseh Sherman.  For many in the South, still attempting to come to grips with their defeat the day would become about “The Lost Cause” or “the defense of Liberty” or “States Rights” and the war was often referred to as the “War of Northern Aggression.”

The “Martyrs of the Racecourse” cemetery is no longer there. The site is now a park honoring the fascinatingly complex Confederate General and post-Reconstruction Governor of South Carolina Wade Hampton. An oval track remains in the park and is used to run or walk by the local population and cadets from the Citadel. Thankfully, at long last in 2010, one hundred and forty-five years after the dedication of that cemetery a marker was placed in that park commemorating the cemetery and the event that we now recognize as the first Memorial Day.

The Union dead who had been so beautifully honored by the Black population were moved to the National Cemetery at Beaufort South Carolina by the 1880s. Some state that the reason for this was that the cemetery had fallen into neglect, and this may be the case, but the event and their memory conveniently erased from memory of Charlestonians. I do not think that this would have happened had the people who had the bodies moved simply restored and maintained the cemetery. Had not historian David Blight found the documentation we probably still would not know of this touching act by former slaves who honored those that fought the battles, and gave their lives to win their freedom. Blight wrote in 2011 in the 1870s Charleston “had no place for the former slaves’ march on their masters’ racecourse.”

The African American population of Charleston understood the bonds of slavery and oppression. They understood the tyranny of prejudice in which they only counted as 3/5ths of a person. They understood and saw the suffering of those that were taken prisoner while attempting to liberate them from the tyranny of slavery. They stand as an example for us today.

But their suffering was not over. Within little more than a decade Blacks in the South would be subject to Jim Crow and again treated by many whites as something less than human.  The struggle of they and their descendants against the tyranny of racial prejudice, discrimination and violence over the next 100 years would finally bear fruit in the Civil Rights movement, some of whose leaders, like the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. would also become martyrs. Unfortunately that struggle is not over.

Frederick Douglass spoke to Union Veterans on Memorial Day 1878.  His words, particularly in light of the war and the struggles of African Americans since and the understanding of what those who were enslaved understood liberation to be are most significant to our time. It was not merely a war based on sectionalism or even “States rights,” it was a war of ideas, a war of diametrically opposed ideologies. He said:

“But the sectional character of this war was merely accidental and its least significant feature.  It was a war of ideas, a battle of principles and ideas which united one section and divided the other; a war between the old and new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization; between a government based upon the broadest and grandest declaration of human rights the world ever heard or read, and another pretended government, based upon an open, bold and shocking denial of all rights, except the right of the strongest.” 

Douglass’s words were powerful then and they resonate today as many of the same ideas that were the cause of the Civil War and were continued during Jim Crow are still alive. Unfortunately there are those in our society who labor daily to establish the “rights” of the strongest over the weak, the poor, the powerless and minorities of all kinds. Of course such actions, often wrapped in the flag, patriotism and buttressed with cherry picked quotes (many of which are fake, changed or taken out of context) from some of our founders are designed to re-establish the oligarchy of the power of the few, much like the men who owned the lives of the slaves and poor whites in the ante-bellum American South. Such actions do nothing but demean and trample the sacrifice of those who fought for freedom and the only remedy is to fight them with the full knowledge of truth.

I do hope that in the coming days as we prepare to celebrate Memorial Day that we do so in a fitting manner. Let us honor those Americans who died that others might be free. Let us look back at what freedom actually means and not forget the sacrifices of those that gave, and still give their lives in the “last full measure of devotion to duty” that others might live.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Separate and Unequal: Jim Crow Still Lives at a Florida Civil War Battlefield

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The Battle of Olustee

Something is going on in Florida that shows that Jim Crow is still very much alive in the hearts and motivations of some elected officials and their supporters.

This is going on in regard to the Battle of Olustee, and the Battle of Olustee Battlefield State Park. Last year the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War requested permission from the State Parks Department to place a monument at the site. The Parks Department responded favorably to the request and began to determine where on the battlefield to place the memorial to the Union dead. It would stand on ground where three monuments to Confederate units and casualties already stand.

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The Main Monument at Olustee

That was when Republican State Representative Dennis Baxley, the House Judiciary Chairman got involved. Baxley is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He stated that he believed that a Union monument would “redefine” the park. He called it “revisionist history” and objected to a non-elected body making these kinds of decisions.

Baxley was joined by James Davis, the Florida Division Commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in opposition to a Union memorial at the site. Davis did not object to a Union memorial per say, but he objected locating one in the park. Davis said: “We are not opposed to the monument at all; we are opposed to the location, and here is why — it’s like any other historical building, you put something brand new in there and it destroys the significance of it.” Davis suggested that the memorial be built across the road from the park, near the museum located on Federal property instead.

The National Commander of the Son’s of Confederate Veterans began an internet campaign against the monument stating  his opposition to the “Darth Vader-esque obscene obsidian obelisk.” Another leader of the group, Jim Shillinglaw noted: “If you have an Iraq war monument, you don’t want to put a Muslim/jihadist monument right in front of it.

There are numerous Confederate monuments on Union soil, including a number of major monuments at Gettysburg. Across the country it is standard practice to include monuments for both Union and Confederate forces that fought at these battles. In fact I know of no battlefields where what is going on at Olustee has ever been an issue.

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The Virginia Monument at Gettysburg 

In fact the Florida State Parks Department is going ahead with plans to have a Union Monument. The chief officer for park planning, Lew Scruggs said: “The mission in the state park system is to commemorate the battle between the two opposing forces; it’s not restricted to one.” The park itself has also been recognized for its past work in remembering the African Americans who fought at the battle.

So why the fuss?

As a historian I wondered why this might be an issue to Baxley and Davis. But then I did some reading on the battle. It was fought in February 1864 and was a significant Confederate tactical victory. The Confederate troops, highly experienced combat veterans, including Colquitt’s Georgia brigade which had been detached to help hold back the Union in Florida inflicted heavy casualties on a badly handled Union force. Both sides had about the same number of troops involved and the Confederate victory kept the Union from setting up a Union government in the state prior to the end of the war. For a relatively small battle it was fierce and bloody, casualties on both sides were considerable. The Union suffered about 2000 casualties to just under 1000 suffered by the Confederates.

However, there is an issue that has not been brought up in most media accounts of this new “Battle of Olustee.” The fact is that nearly half of the Union troops engaged were “Colored Troops,” the 8th and 35th Regiments of U.S. Colored Troops and the illustrious 54th Massachusetts. The 8th and 35th USCT regiments were both new to combat. At the end of the battle the 54th helped cover the Union retreat back to Jacksonville.

After the battle the wounded Union Colored troops left on the battlefield were slaughtered by some units of Confederates. The testimony of Confederate troops in letters and memoirs attests to the slaughter of the wounded and other prisoners. William Frederick Penniman of the 4th Florida Cavalry wrote:

“A young officer was standing in the road in front of me and I asked him, “What is the meaning of all this firing I hear going on”. His reply to me was, “Shooting niggers Sir. “I have tried to make the boys desist but I can’t control them”. I made some answer in effect that it seemed horrible to kill the wounded devils, and he again answered, “That’s so Sir, but one young fellow over yonder told me the niggers killed his brother after being wounded, at Fort Pillow, and he was twenty three years old, that he had already killed nineteen and needed only four more to make the matter even, so I told him to go ahead and finis the job”. I rode on but the firing continued.

The next morning I had occasion to go over the battle field again quite early, before the burial squads began their work, when the results of the shooting of the previous night became quite apparent. Negroes, and plenty of them, whom I had seen lying all over the field wounded, and as far as I could see, many of them moving around from palace to place, now without a motion, all were dead. If a negro had a shot in the shin another was sure to be in the head.” 

Likewise Corporal Henry Shackelford of the 19th Georgia Infantry wrote in a letter home: “We got all their artillery, 8 pieces, took about 400 prisoners and killed about the same number. How our boys did walk into the niggers, they would beg and pray but it did no good.” (Excerpt from letter written by Corporal Henry Shackelford, 19th Georgia Infantry 20 February 1864)

The Commander of the 2nd Florida Cavalry urged his men into battle that day with a clear message:

“Comrades and soldiers of the 2nd Florida Cavalry, we are going into this fight to win. Although we are fighting five or six to one, we will die, but never surrender. General Seamore’s Army is made up largely of negroes from Georgia and South Carolina, who have come to steal, pillage, run over the state and murder, Kill and rape our wives, daughters and sweethearts. Let’s teach them a lesson. I shall not take any negro prisoners in this fight.” (Lawrence Jackson, Company C, 2nd Florida Cavalry, written in 1929 when he was 65 years old.)

The unspoken issue is not that the fact that the troops being honored are simply white Union boys, but rather that so many were African Americans. Baxley’s and Davis’s words speak volumes. This is a racial issue. Davis is not opposed to a monument, he just doesn’t want it to be where the Confederate monuments are. Baxley says that having a monument to the Union troops who fought there is “revisionist history.” Give me a break. It is history. Union troops fought there too and they are entitled to a monument, last this become a shrine to those who murdered the wounded and prisoners after the battle. I wonder how these men would feel if a request by the Confederate Veterans for a monument to Confederate troops at a park in a state that fought for the Union was opposed in such a manner. I’m sure that they would make the same cry of revisionist history, but this time be correct.

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Detail of the Main Monument at the Olustee Battlefield State Park

But then maybe that is what Davis and Baxley want. Maybe that is the history that they want to preserve. I would hope not, but their language makes it hard to believe that that is not exactly what they desire. I can only believe that both men still hold to the message “segregation forever” and are still committed to fulfilling the dream of the Lost Cause that died on the battlefields of the Civil War. They may not say so openly but the message is clear, keep the memory of the blacks out, even if they are dead.

Sorry, all the men who fought at Olustee deserve a memorial.  Even the African American Union troops. That is history, that is recognizing all who fought there.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Note: All quotes from soldiers and information about the battle come from The Battle of Olustee and the Battle of Olustee Site Reenactment website, http://www.battleofolustee.org . The quotes from Davis and Baxley are found at the Tampa Bay Times article at http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/stateroundup/fight-flares-over-sons-of-union-veterans-request-for-monument-in-north/2161556

As a side note I am also eligible to join the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but because the organization frequently acts in this manner I refuse to join.

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The First Memorial Day

The acrid smell of smoke of the last battles of the American Civil War was still lingering over many towns and cities in the South on May 1st 1865.  Charleston South Carolina, a hotbed of secession was particularly hard hit during the war. In 1861 Cadets of the Citadel and South Carolina militia forces began the war with the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Union Forces laid siege to the city in late 1863 which ended with the city’s surrender on 18 February 1865. By this time much of the city had been destroyed by Union siege artillery and naval forces.

Charleston had also been the home of three of the Prisoner of War Camps erected by the Confederacy, one in the Charleston City Jail and the other at Castle Pinckney. Another camp was erected on the site of the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in 1864. This was an open air camp and Yale Historian David Blight wrote that “Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.” (See http://www.davidwblight.com/memorial.htm)

By the end of the war most of the white population of the city had left and most of those remaining were recently freed slaves. After their liberation and the city’s occupation by Federal forces including the famous 54th Massachusetts as well as the 20th, 35th and 104th US Colored Troops Regiments. A number, about 28 Black men went to work and properly reinterred these 257 Union dead on the raceway building a high fence around it. They inscribed “Martyrs of the Race Course” on an arch above the cemetery entrance.

On May 1st over 10,000 Black Charlestonians gathered at the site to honor the fallen. Psalms, Scriptures and prayers were said, hymns were sung and many brought flowers. A parade of 2800 children covered the burial ground with flowers.  They were followed by members of the Patriotic Association of Colored Men and the Mutual Aid Society whose members provided relief supplies to Freedmen and provided aid to bury those Blacks who were too poor to afford burial. More citizens followed many laying flower bouquets on the graves. Children then led the singing of The Star Spangled Banner, America and Rally Around the Flag. The Brigade composed of the 54th Massachusetts and the 35th and 104th Colored Regiments marched in honor of their fallen comrades. Following the formalities many remained behind for a picnic.  A contemporary account can be found here: http://media.charleston.net/2009/pdf/firstmemorial_day_052409.pdf

Other communities would establish their own Memorial Day observances in the years following the war, with the Charleston event preceding the next earliest event by a full year. The first “Official” commemoration was on 30 May 1868 when Union General John Logan and head of the veteran’s organization called The Grand Army of the Republic appealed to communities to honor the dead by holding ceremonies and decorating the graves of the fallen. In the South three different days served a similar purpose.  In Virginia people commemorated the day on June 3rd, the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the Carolinas marked the day on 10 May, the birthday of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, while in the Deep South the event was conducted on the anniversary of the surrender of General Joseph Johnson’s Army to General William Tecumseh Sherman.  For many in the South the day would become about “The Lost Cause” or “the defense of Liberty” or “States Rights” and was often caused the “War of Northern Aggression.”

The “Martyrs of the Racecourse” cemetery is no longer there. The site is now a park honoring Confederate General and the White Supremacist “Redeemer Governor” of South Carolina Wade Hampton. An oval track remains in the park and is used by the local population and cadets from the Citadel to run on. The Union dead who had been so beautifully honored by the Black population were moved to the National Cemetery at Beaufort South Carolina in the 1880s and the event conveniently erased from memory. Had not historian David Blight found the documentation we probably still would not know of this touching act which so honored those that fought the battles that won their freedom.

The African American population of Charleston who understood the bonds of slavery and oppression, the tyranny of prejudice in which they only counted as 3/5ths of a person and saw the suffering of those that were taken prisoner while attempting to liberate them stand as an example for us today.  Within little more than a decade they would be subject to Jim Crow and again treated by many whites as something less than human.  The struggle of them and their descendants against the tyranny of racial prejudice, discrimination and violence over the next 100 years would finally bear fruit in the Civil Rights movement whose leaders, like the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. would also become martyrs.

Frederick Douglass spoke to Union Veterans on Memorial Day 1878.  His words, particularly in light of the war and the struggles of African Americans since and the understanding of what those who were enslaved understood liberation to be are most significant to our time. It was not merely a war based on sectionalism or even “States rights,” it was a war of ideas. He said:

“But the sectional character of this war was merely accidental and its least significant feature.  It was a war of ideas, a battle of principles and ideas which united one section and divided the other; a war between the old and new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization; between a government based upon the broadest and grandest declaration of human rights the world ever heard or read, and another pretended government, based upon an open, bold and shocking denial of all rights, except the right of the strongest.” 

I do hope in the days ahead as we prepare to celebrate Memorial Day, as we prepare to honor those Americans who died that others might be free to look back at what freedom actually means and not forget the sacrifices of those that give their lives that others might live.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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