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Confederate Memorial Day: Celebrating the Lost Cause and Racial Prejudice

Through much of the South, Confederate Memorial Day continues to be celebrated. With ceremony and paid time off, the adherents to the Southern Cause have long come together to remember the Confederate dead, lament their defeat in the Civil War, and wax prejudicial about black Americans.

Let’s take a look at this curious holiday, which in all likelihood, even predates the earliest wide-spread observation of a spring day set aside to honor United States veterans. Like its Federal counterpart, the exact origin of the holiday has been contested from the beginning.

The First Confederate Memorial Day

To some, the village of Warrenton, Virginia observed the first Confederate Memorial Day with the burial of Captain John Quincy Marr of the Warrenton Rifles, who was killed on June 1, 1861. He was “buried in the little village graveyard, June 3rd, with military honors,” read a 1906 article, “wept over by the old and young; flowers strewn on his grave, and the first Confederate Memorial Day was observed.” 1Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 15, 1906. As printed in Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 35-36 (1907) 369-70. Here.

Confederate Monument in Columbus, Georgia.
Confederate Monument in Columbus, Georgia.

Granted, the above author was speaking more hyperbolically than anything, but it shows just how wide the definition of Confederate Memorial Day became during the Lost Cause era. For most, a time pre-dating even the Battle of First Manassas, is far too early.

The most commonly accepted origin was but a year after Appomattox. Mary Williams of Columbus, Georgia is said to have been the first person to organize a specific and annual date for decorating the graves of fallen Confederates. Looking more toward Joseph Johnston’s surrender than toward Lee’s, Mrs. Williams, herself a war widow, selected April 26 as the date upon which to observe it.

“We feel it is an unfinished work unless a day be set apart annually for its special attention,” wrote Mary Williams in March of 1866. “We can keep alive the memory of the debt we owe them, by dedicating at least one day in each year to embellishing their humble graves with flowers.”

She named it “Dedication Day,” and founded the Georgia Memorial Association, which went on to establish a cemetery in Marietta. “Let all alike be remembered,” she wrote, “from the heroes of Manassas to those who expired amid the death throes of our hallowed cause.” The Georgia legislature acted swiftly, making it a state-wide holiday April 26, 1866. 2Isaac Wheeler Avery The History of the State of Georgia from 1850 to 1881 (New York: Brown & Derby, Publishers, 1881) 242, 503, 717. Here. Even this account is suspect. See this, for instance.

By the Dusts of Southern Chivalry – The Early Years

Over the next couple of years, Memorial Associations established similar Memorial Day celebrations. It spread first through Georgia, and almost spontaneously through South Carolina and into Virginia.

Confederate Memorial in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia. 1905.
Confederate Memorial in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia. 1905.

In Richmond, it was celebrated on May 10th, marking the anniversary of the death of Stonewall Jackson. Winchester, Virginia observed it on June 6th in honor of Turner Ashby’s death. The birthplace of secession, Charleston, South Carolina, first echoed Richmond’s observation of Jackson’s death, but changed it the next year to June 16th, as a remembrance of the nearby Battle of Secessionville. Raleigh, North Carolina took up the Jackson banner in 1867, while Petersburg, Virginia celebrated the day on June 9th – the 1864 date when General Grant’s United States troops first assaulted their city. 3History of the Confederated Memorial Associations of the South (Confederated Southern Memorial Association, 1904) 231-232, 246, 292, 304-324. Here.

The typical event was ceremonial in nature. The years immediately following the war saw the re-interment of Confederate dead as the local counties and states procured land in which to bury them.

Stanton, Virginia, in 1868, celebrated in such a way. The observers first gathered at the Methodist Church, singing hymns, praying, and listening to various sermons by pastors and Confederate chaplains. After several hours, they formed a procession to the cemetery, accompanied by two bands, including the Stonewall Band. Upon arriving at the cemetery, the graves of the veterans were decorated with wreaths and flowers, donations were collected, and then the procession was marched to the courthouse where they were dismissed. 4Staunton Spectator, June 16, 1868, 3. Here.

Though there was no official connection to any militia or military, the solemn affair held a martial aire. It was lead by clergy, but Confederate officers of the former army led the parade and collected donations.

In Petersburg on the same date, “thousands of Southern maids and matrons in this city” thronged about “the spots hallowed by the dust of Southern chivalry,” reported the Petersburg Express. They bore “their tender offerings of violets and roses as a tribute to the memory of departed valor. … Their images are painted in colors that shall never fade upon the canvass of loving memories, and their names stand out in letters of living light upon that page whereon are inscribed the deeds of those that die for freedom.” 5Petersburg Express, June 9, 1868. As printed in the New York Times, June 12, 1868. Here.

Confederate Memorial Arch, Petersburg, Virginia.
Confederate Memorial Arch, Petersburg, Virginia.

There was, of course, some Northern backlash. The New York Times published an piece inferring, at least according to the Petersburg Express, that such observances were “one of the unfriendly symptoms of Southern opinion.” 6I cannot find where the NYT stated this. Once or twice a week, the Times ran a column entitled “Southern Opinion,” in which they ran short snippets from Southern papers without commentary. Likely, it was one of these which the Express took issue. In their own defense, the Express replied:

“We regret that such conclusions should be drawn. But be this as it may—the North may as well understand at once and forever that no persecution, however severe ; no malignity, however envenomed ; no considerations of policy however patent, can withdraw the great Southern heart from its ceaseless ward and watch at the graves of those who vainly died that their people might be free. We have no desire to connect these memorial tributes with the political agitations of the hour. They involve a sentiment too sacred for such associations. The noble spirits who constitute our glorious army of marters, fill a place in the affections of the South which absorbs every thought and affords no room for the contentions of earth.” 7As printed in the Staunton Spectator, June 23, 1868. Here.

Though the ceremonies were typically apolitical, a very segregationist bent was naturally within them. While thousands upon thousands of slaves had been forced to labor for the Confederate army, at this point in the memorialization of the war, they were not remotely recognized. In fact, immediately following the article telling of the Confederate Memorial Day in the Staunton Spectator, the paper ran an article about “The Negro Rioting at Washington.” The article gave no real details or facts of the supposed event, but explained to their readers what a “negro riot” might look like: “… a negro mob can murder white men on the public streets, break into stores and rob them; invade the sanctity of private houses and beat their inmates; threaten newspaper offices and spread alarm among the whole population, and all by way of celebrating an election triumph….” It concluded that “The negro riots in Washington are the natural fruits of negro suffrage and equality….” 8Staunton Spectator, June 9, 1868. Here. The rumors of such riots appear to be wholly unfounded. 9Searching various period newspapers led to finding no mention at all of any demonstrations following a May or early June election in Washington, DC, 1868.

Something Terribly Outrageous – The Use of the Confederate Battle Flag

In January of 1867, before many cities in the South established official Confederate Memorial Days, smaller observations were held. One such ceremony took place in Rome, Georgia, during which three former Confederate soldiers held a funeral for an officer. A Confederate Battle Flag was draped over his coffin, and this act was witnessed by a member of the Freedman’s Bureau.

Confederate monument and cannon at Livingston, Ala. 1910s.
Confederate monument and cannon at Livingston, Ala. 1910s.

Uncomfortable with the display and reverence given to the flag during the ceremony and throughout the town, his superior officer banned the use of all Confederate emblems as “hateful to the people of the United States.” With the opening of Radical Reconstruction in 1867, this ban was more or less established throughout the South.

Up until that point, the Battle Flag and other emblems were widely used in ceremonies as well as open displays. In some places, it was noted that Confederate flags were flown more than the flag of the United States. Following the defeat of Reconstruction, the flags slowly came back to the memorials, and would soon become synonymous with Confederate Memorial Day. 10John M. Coski The Confederate Battle Flag (Harvard University Press, 2005) 48-49.

Through the 1870s, as the Southern Democrats retook control of their states, enacting Black Codes, and ushering in the Jim Crow era, the Battle Flag became more important to the Southern identity. As a society, the white South purposely selected not the National Flag of their fallen nation, but the flag of their armies – the Battle Flag – as the symbol behind which they would memorialize their dead.

This makes some logical sense, of course. They were celebrating soldiers who, in most cases, fought under that very flag. But as the years went on, the soldiers became as much a symbol of their Lost Cause as was their banner.

President Harding at Confederate memorial services, 1922.
President Harding at Confederate memorial services, 1922.

In late April of 1880, Columbus, Georgia was about to celebrate their Confederate Memorial Day. The Columbus Enquirer asked “Is it disloyal to recommend that the Confederate flag be displayed on Southern memorial day? If so, we are going to do something terribly outrageous.” They were not calling for another war, but making an appeal to the sentiments of Georgians who had perhaps once cared about such things.

“There are many in our country, young people, who have never seen a Confederate banner,” it continued, “and they would like to behold the colors which their fathers followed so gloriously. Thousands of brave soldiers have probably never rested their eyes on the last standard our Congress adopted. So we earnestly wish some of our ladies would prepare one for next Monday, our Confederate Sabbath, that it may be seen what it was.”

They wished for the last National Flag, as well as the Battle Flag, and the flag of the United States to be flown. “If anybody’s intense loyalty is shocked, he need not look, but feast his eyes on the flag of our common country, the representative of States distinct as the billows, but one as the sea.”

It’s clear from this piece that while Confederate Memorial Day had continued to be celebrated through and after Reconstruction, the use of the flag had waned. Though the author was probably exaggerating about the complete lack of the symbol, it seems certain that its use was almost nonexistent up until this point.

Also interesting is the reference to the “Confederate Sabbath.” It shows how ingrained the sentiment truly was. Their memory of the war, their heritage, was now a religion to them. Their flag was akin to the Christians’ cross.

“There is nothing connected with the ‘conquered banner’ which was furled so sadly and put away,” concluded the author, “of which the South cannot be proud.” 11Columbus Enquirer, April 22, 1880. As printed in the New York Times, April 26, 1880. Here.

The Triumph over Negro Rule – The Lost Cause and Racial Prejudice

From then on these observations cemented themselves through the entire South, with each state and community continuing to observe it on various dates. The Lost Cause sentiment that was expressed so early in the Petersburg memorial spread along with the holiday, becoming part-in-parcel of the ceremony.

By 1887, such sentiments were almost exclusive. “Again the 10th of May rolls around,” read an editorial in the Raleigh News and Observer, “and we repair to the last resting places of those who wore the gray and died in that patriotic service specially to recall once more the heroic value of the sleeping army and the virtues of those who gave up all that made life sweet to go cheerily to war because it was for home and country. It is a custom as appropriate as it is touching, and we trust it will always and without breach be observed in our southland.” 12Raleigh News and Observer, May 1887. As quoted in W. Stuart Towns Enduring Legacy (University of Alabama Press, 2012) 19.

Confederate Monument, Augusta, Ga. 1903.
Confederate Monument, Augusta, Ga. 1903.

This message, typical of any given Lost Cause speech, had been floating around since immediately after the war. But as the push back began to come from Southern black communities, the Memorial Day addresses show how the white South dealt with what would turn out to be a second black revolution.

During Augusta, Georgia’s 1902 Confederate Memorial Day ceremonies, the throngs were addressed by Joseph R. Lamar, a member of the Georgia Supreme Court, who would, in 1910, be appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President Taft. Lamar, as so many were doing at this time, spoke of how good the Southern blacks had it.

Lamar bragged how the “percentage of violence against the negro on account of race is less in the South than it is in the North….” He also brought the subject back around to the troops by explaining that “the Confederate soldier fought as much in vindication of his treatment of the negro, as for any other of the many nameless factors which brought on the War.”

But still, he lamented the abolitionists who “seemed to think that Freedom was a cure-all and that as soon as slavery was abolished, the African would not only be the white man’s peer before the law, but his equal in attainments and possibilities.” He lamented more that the slave “was freed from his master, without being freed from the burdens of heredity, ignorance and racial disabilities. What an appalling problem to have such a stream injected into the current of our national life!”

As Lamar understood it, part of the problem was that in the South “the Proclamation of Emancipation has been taken too literally.” The “negroes” had to be guided by the “superior mind” of the whites. He was angered that “the land, to a large extent, has been turned over to the freedman… [who] is allowed to farm as he sees fit; to waste the resources of the soil….”

The solution that Lamar expounded on Confederate Memorial Day 1902 was for the black farmers and laborers to be fully restricted by their landlords and bosses. “It will elevate the negro and multiply the resources of the land,” he explained. More importantly, “it will make our percentage appear better.” As it stood now, the black people among them made “us appear in all the tables, worse than we are. In the eyes of the world, we share his poverty. In the eyes of the world, he makes us appear illiterate. If we would direct his labor, it will be the betterment of all concerned.” 13Joseph Rucker Lamar Address by Hon. Joseph R. Lamar of Augusta, Georgia: Delivered on Memorial Day, April, 1902 at Athens Georgia 37-38, 40, 42-43, 45.

Confederate Monument, Norfolk, Va. 1910s.
Confederate Monument, Norfolk, Va. 1910s.

In 1909, former Secretary of the Navy, Hilary A. Herbert, addressed Norfolk’s Confederate Memorial Day observance. Surrounded by American, Confederate, and Virginia flags, he spoke more like a defeated Rebel than a citizen of the United States.

“We lost our battle for the independence of the Confederacy,” he began, sharing with them a tie to the past that even holding one of the Federal government’s highest offices couldn’t sever. Though they had lost the war, they could take solace in knowing that “we finally triumphed in all our States over carpet bag and negro rule, the creatures of radicalism.” 14New York Times, May 15, 1909. Here.

Though he certainly lamented the loss of the Southern cause, he implored his Virginia audience to celebrate the defeat of blacks in politics along side the memory of their fallen fathers and grandfathers. This was, he was saying, the same cause for which they fought – they were merely completing the work begun by their ancestors.

Segregation and the Ku Klux Klan

Confederate Memorial Days throughout the decades varied little in their content and actions. Yet, society was changing around them. The observations had changed from honoring and remembering the dead to glorifying the Southern Cause and lamenting that the Confederacy had not won the war. This can not only be witnessed by the speeches above, but by the groups participating.

The end of the nineteenth century saw the founding of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Though both fully perpetuated the Lost Cause myth, neither organization was overtly political until the Civil Rights Era, when the SCV joined the Dixiecrats in taking a stand against Black Americans. 15This was covered in previous articles, here.

Klan Postcard from the 1920s featuring Stone Mountain.
Klan Postcard from the 1920s featuring Stone Mountain.

The one organization to pull no punches was the reformed Ku Klux Klan. After disbanding in the 1870s, the Klan was rebirthed in 1915, symbolized by a giant flaming cross set ablaze atop Stone Mountain, itself owned and carved by a Klan leader. Though this renewed Klan focused less upon their Confederate heritage and widened their hatred and terrorism beyond the black community, they made it a point to march in various Confederate Memorial Day parades.

Twenty of their number, in full hooded regalia, marched in Macon, Georgia’s 1922 parade. 16Thomas R. Pegram One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth and Decline of the Ku Klux Klan (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011) 39. In 1939 Atlanta, they marched, carrying both the United States flag, as well as the Confederate Battle Flag. 17Coski, 87. In some places, notably Alabama, the Klan even led the Confederate Memorial Day celebrations. 18Stephen Stack The Effect of Publicized Executions on Homicide in Alabama published in Criminology Research Focus, Karen T. Froeling, ed., (Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 2007) 153. Throughout the South, the Klan placed themselves at the center of many events meant to honor the Confederate dead.

19Of course, the Klan also marched in the North’s Memorial Day parades, usually without opposition. Their message there was nondifferent from their message in the South, though it was stripped of any Confederate glorification. They focused their efforts in the North against Roman Catholicism, battling some with the Knights of Columbus in 1923 and 1924 on Long Island. [See Pegram, 82.] The Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans organization for Union soldiers, allowed 1,400 Klansman to march in Jamaica, Queens Memorial Day parade, causing the Boy Scouts and the Knights of Columbus to drop out in protest. The police attempted to stop the Klan, but they were overpowered. [See Chalmers, 263.]

Black Confederates – Modern Times and the Struggle for Meaning

The racism intertwining the Southern Heritage movement with the Klan lasted through the Civil Rights Era. It changed some with the times, but largely excluded any factually positive mention of black Americans until after the dust had settled in the 1970s. Following the Civil War Centennial celebrations, Confederate Memorial observances were relegated to mostly the elderly, still clinging to the past.

James L. Harrison
James L. Harrison

This would change in the 1990s, with renewed efforts to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from official government buildings across the South. Along with steadfast dedication to the flag, they also folded the newly-formed idea of “black Confederates” into the mix. In a 1992 address given in Arkansas by James L. Harrison, author and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, explained that Confederate Memorial Day was designed to pay homage to those who at a great sacrifice devoted their lives and fortunes to a just cause of defending their homeland and to the principle of states’ rights.” Admitting that “we have failed to reflect on the diversity of the men” who he believed fought for the Confederacy, Harrison wished to celebrate the “numerous blacks [who] also saw military action under the Stars and Bars.”

“Let it never again be said that the war was fought to free the slaves,” he concluded. “Let us on this Confederate Memorial Day pay tribute to all who faithfully supported the Cause, particularly black Southerners who also fought to defend their homeland from the Yankee invaders.” 20As printed in J.H. Segars Black Confederates (Pelican Publishing, 2004) 60-62.

Cultural Terrorism and the Struggle for Relevancy

This rhetoric has little diminished or altered over the ensuing years to the present. Granted, it’s been accompanied by stronger opposition to the removal of the Confederate Battle flags from public buildings, but more than that, Confederate Memorial Day is struggling for not only relevancy, but its own existence.

The holiday is officially observed in all of the formerly-seceded states but Arkansas, Missouri, and Virginia. For good measure, Kentucky, a state which remained loyal to the United States, decided to join in with the rest of the South. Though the dates vary, all but Texas celebrates it in the spring. Though North and south Carolina still hold to observing it on May 10, the death of Stonewall Jackson, most of the rest observe it on Jefferson Davis’ birthday, June 3. In Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, state offices are closed. 21Wikipedia is almost never an acceptable source, but in cases like this, where it’s just dates and doesn’t really matter, it’s fine. Here.

If you missed the first Confederate Memorial Day, don't worry, there's a whole bunch more coming up!
If you missed the first Confederate Memorial Day, don’t worry, there’s a whole bunch more coming up!

Along with the observation of Martin Luther King Day, states such as Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday concurrently. In Arkansas’ case, they had been celebrating Lee’s birthday since the 1940s, and added MLK Day to it in 1983. In January of 2015, the state legislature voted upon a measure that would have given the day fully to MLK. It would not have forgotten Lee, but would have handed him a memorial day (not an official holiday) in November. Even this measure was voted down. Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas’ Republican governor is currently urging lawmakers to reconsider. “It’s important that that day be distinguished and separate,” said Hutchinson, “and focused on the civil rights struggle and what he [King] personally did in that effort.” 22“Arkansas governor seeks to end MLK and Robert E Lee shared holiday” The Guardian, January 17, 2016. Here.

Things are getting even more bizarre in Georgia, where the holiday is no longer officially celebrated in name, but state offices are closed for an official holiday. Feeling that Confederate Heritage was being slighted, State Representative Tommy Benton proposed three bills into the House. The first protected Confederate monuments, the second would force any streets renamed after 1968 to revert back to their former names if they had been originally named in honor of Confederate veterans. In his final bill, he called for the state to officially recognize Robert E. Lee’s birthday on January 19 and Confederate Memorial Day on April 26. This would only be a renaming, since state employees already have both days off in unnamed state holidays. Though the bills were controversial, they would have made few headlines if it weren’t for Tommy Benton’s remarks in defense of them.

He began by explaining that efforts to remove Confederate flags and monuments was “cultural terrorism.” “That’s no better than what ISIS is doing, destroying museums and monuments,” he continued. The Civil War was not fought over slavery, he claimed, and then defended the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order,” he said. “It made a lot of people straighten up.” 23Chris Joyner “Top Ga. lawmaker criticized for Klan comments” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 28, 2016. Here.

When questioned about his remarks, Benton doubled down. But as national coverage zeroed in on this Georgia lawmaker, he removed his name from the bills, but refusing to make an apology. Instead, he claimed that it was not his “intention to create a situation whereby my comments would create a negative perception.” There was a movement to fully remove Benton from his seat on the House Committee on Human Relations and Aging, but House Speaker David Ralston allowed him to retain his position. 24Chris Joyner “Rep. Benton withdraws legislation following ‘negative perception’” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 1, 2016. Here.

It’s somewhat fitting that the demise of Confederate Memorial Days is surrounded by politics. The original Confederate Memorial Days were often seen as political in nature, especially by the Union troops stationed in the South. The nation, it now seems, is finally ready to let go of such blind glorification of Confederate Heritage, and is instead willing to look at our collective history. In the future, we must not let sentiment filter and distort the facts of the past. From its very inception, Confederate Memorial Day was meant to interpret the war along the Lost Cause mythos, regardless not only of history, but even of the changing society around which the holidays are still celebrated.

Veterans in uniform leaving the memorial, Arlington, Va., 1914.
Veterans in uniform leaving the memorial, Arlington, Va., 1914.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.