Whatever Happened to Decoration Day?

This Fourth of July seems a good time to ask

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Decoration Day began on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, when an estimated ten thousand people, most of them former slaves, paraded to place flowers on the newly dug graves of 257 Union soldiers who had been buried without coffins behind the grandstand of a race course. They had been held in the infield without tents, as prisoners of war, while Union batteries pounded the city’s downtown to rubble during the closing days of the Civil War.

The evolution of Decoration Day over the next fifty years was one of the questions that led historian David W. Blight to write Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard, 2001). When Blight’s book appeared it was quickly overshadowed by the events of 9/11.  Eric Foner conveyed its message most clearly in The New York Times Book Review – but only on page 28.  Today Race and Reunion is more relevant than ever. For a better idea of what the book is about than I can give you, read Foner’s review.

When I was a kid, May 30, Decoration Day was still ostensibly about remembering the Civil War, but the events of that May day in Charleston a hundred years before were no part of the story (though the POW camp at Andersonville, Georgia certainly had become part of the lore.). The names of veterans of various wars were read on the village green.  A bugler played taps. Decoration Day had been proclaimed a day of commemoration in 1868, when the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic ordered soldiers to visit their comrades’ graves. In 1890 it was declared a state holiday in New York.

And by the time Woodrow Wilson, the first southerner to be elected president since the Civil War, spoke at Gettysburg, on July 4, 1913, fifty years after the battle itself, the holiday had become national – but the experiences of black Americans had all but dropped out of the narrative. The hoopla was about the experiences of the Blue and the Gray, never mind that man blacks had served in the Union army.

Soon after the war had ended, another war had begun, a contest of ideas about how the meaning of the war was to be understood: the emancipation of the slaves vs. the reconciliation of the contending armies. The politics of Reconstruction – the attempted elevation of blacks to full citizenship and Constitutional equality – ended in defeat. In his book, Blight wrote, “The forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipation vision in the national culture.” Decoration Day gradually became Memorial Day, just as Armistice Day in November became Veterans Day. Americans got what the novelist William Dean Howells said they inevitably wanted:  tragedies with a happy endings.

The age of segregation didn’t end until the Sixties. Black leaders like Frederick Douglass and W.E. B. Du Bois had burnished the vision of emancipation. Educators, writers, and agitators articulated it and put it into practice. A second Reconstruction began in the years after World War II. In the 1960s the Civil Rights Movement reached a political peak.  A new equilibrium was achieved and lasted for a time.

So don’t fret about “critical race theory.”  A broad-based Third Reconstruction has begun.  Blight was an early text, as was Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of a Well: The Permanence of Racism, which appeared in 1992. The tumult will continue for some time. Rising generations will take account of it. A new equilibrium will be attained. It will last for a time, before a Fourth Reconstruction begins.

In the meantime, the new holiday of Juneteenth is an appropriate successor to the original Decoration Day – a civic holiday of importance second only to the Fourth of July.

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EP failed to hook up sufficiently to the Substack platform in time to make the switch this week. The new arrangement will begin next week.