Confederate Memorial Day As a “Line in the Sand”

UVA Confederate CemeteryI had a few hours to kill today so I decided to attend our annual UDC/SCV Memorial Day commemoration here in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The ceremony is held at the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia.  It’s a wonderful little spot that includes your standard soldier monument as well as the graves of 1,097 Confederate soldiers from all over the Confederate South.  I decided to stand in the rear to take it all in.  These ceremonies are pretty standard.  They typically include the Pledge of Allegiance, a salute to the Confederate flag as well as old favorites such as “Dixie’s Land” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”  Who can resist the lovely Lost Cause imagery in “Carry Me Back”, especially when the lyrics were composed by a black man:

Carry Me back to old Virginny/There’s where the cotton and the corn and taters grow/There’s where the birds warble sweet in the springtime/There’s where this old darkey’s heart am longed to go/There’s where I labored so hard for old Massa/Day after day in the field of yellow corn

The prayers included typical references to the “Spirit of ’76″, “Died for states rights”, “overwhelming numbers”, and the SCV’s rallying charge of “unequivocal confidence in the righteousness of the cause.”  One reference, however, got me thinking.  One of the speakers remarked that the graves, along with the monument, reflect a “line in the sand between modern day evils” and a “strong moral code” that animated the men buried, and, I assume white Southern society before modernity set in.  If you look at the profile of the audience the reference makes perfect sense.  There were reenactors with the 19th Virginia in attendance as well as members of the UDC in period costume.  More to the point, it is safe to say that the average age of the audience (approximately 100) was somewhere between 55-60.

There are two problems with this view.  First, it’s self destructive.  To argue that modern society is void of morals or individuals who care about morality/ethics is a sure fire way of alienating a very large constituency.  Unfortunately, today I didn’t see people who wer defending a way of life.  I saw people who fear modernity, which is fine, but it also means that the sound system you’ve been using for the past 50 years may not work when needed.  Let’s face it, given the profile of the SCV/UDC it is not a stretch to suggest that their days are numbered.  Seriously, how many of these chapters will be left in 20 years?  The bigger problem is that their view of the past is much too simplistic and anachronistic.  This notion that white Southerners resisted many aspects of modernity simply does not hold up under close scrutiny.  Many Virginians eagerly embraced industry and other forms of technology as a way to improve their lives and reclaim their rightful position as the leader of the nation.  Even the wealthiest planters hoped to encourage farmers to adopt modern soil practices and, according to John Majewski, vigorously pushed the Virginia state government to become much more active in encouraging the subsidizing of railroads and agricultural societies.  My point is that these were not people who were trying to turn back the hands of time despite what is posted at the entrance to the Wilkes family plantation.

I enjoyed the hour long ceremony.  I got to catch up with my friend and fellow historian Rick Britton who spoke eloquently about the 19th Virginia.  And I was also pleased to hear that our local UDC chapter is working to raise money to place grave markers for all the soldiers buried in the cemetery.  It’s a worthy endeavor and they’ve already managed to place an additional 60 markers since the program began and include the two markers in the above image.

13 comments… add one

  • Marc Ferguson May 23, 2009

    Kevin,
    I have long had the sense that those who identity themselves as celebrating the Confederacy are to a great extent motivated by a fear of modernity and rejection of the modern world.

    Marc

  • STAB Student May 23, 2009

    I am confused with your reasoning of the speaker’s idea on ethnics/morals. First of all, I do not believe that the speaker was there trying to win people over with his opinion on morals. I think rather he was trying to commemorate or honor the Southern soldiers that died in the Civil War. Even if he was trying to persuade people on the idea that Southern society back then had a “strong moral code”, I would have to agree with him. Being born in the past 20 years, I can’t have say from firsthand experience the morals of that time however I can speak with absolute certainty that my generation is losing its sense of morality. Therefore even if the Southern society didn’t have a “strong” moral code, I feel that compared to it now, it would be viewed as strong. However once again I believe that he was just trying to remember those who died in the best view. I may be wrong so could you please explain the point you were trying to make? Thank you.

  • Kevin Levin May 23, 2009

    STAB Student,

    I would love to know who this is, but either way thanks for a thoughtful comment. First, I agree that the speakers were not trying to win their audience over since just about everyone there was sympathetic with the ideas expressed and the purpose of the ceremony. And you are indeed correct that the purpose of today’s ceremony was to commemorate the service of the Confederate soldier as well as the nature of the cause itself. As to your second point, perhaps I should rephrase. My point is more that our tendency to idealize the past as somehow constituting a better time usually ends up being more about those doing the remembering rather than the past itself. In the end it is difficult to generalize about the moral strength of an entire generation. I would venture to suggest that your generation is no better or no worse than any previous generation. Thanks again.

  • Beauregard May 23, 2009

    Your post brings to mind a Lee-Jackson Day ceremony in the Old House Chamber in the Capitol in Richmond we attended when our son was six or seven. There was a talk about Lee’s virtues by a retired officer, a contingent of Confederate reenactors, members of the UDC and SCV and other interested persons. A female soloist warbled “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny and was momentarily thrown off key when our son looked up and asked too loudly, “Did she just say ‘taters’?”

    What a delight to find your blog. A counterpoint to the neo-Confederate views so often encountered on the Web. I salute the SCV and UDC for the great work they do preserving Confederate cemeteries and memorials but memory and preservation does not require demonizing Lincoln and denying slavery as the underlying cause of the war (there would have been no war over states’ rights without slavery) and conjuring battalions of black Confederate troops.

  • mike May 25, 2009

    All the camps I have spoken with are in a very active recruiting mode due to the average age of the Camps membership. I agree Kevin the SCV and UDC could be like the rest of the Old South fade into the shadows of the Spanish Moss and the Pines.
    My concern is who will keep up the cemeteries when these groups are gone.

  • Jimmy Price May 26, 2009

    On a similar note, did anyone see the Memorial Day Parade in Gettysburg yesterday? If you did, you may have been as shocked as I was to see that the Confederate re-enactors marched IN FRONT of the Union re-enactors. This was especially galling, since the parade culminated at the entrance to the National Cemetery. Even worse, the yahoos they got to march in the parade shouted out the following “re-enactorism” before they entered the cemetery:

    Q: Who are we?

    A: Longstreet’s Corps!!

    Q: What do we do?

    A: Kill Yankees!!

    Q: How many?

    A: All of ‘em!

    If this was at a re-enactment, I would’ve simply rolled my eyes, but to utter those words on Memorial Day outside the cemetery where 3,500 Union soldiers are buried seems in poor taste, to put it lightly.

  • Bob Pollock May 27, 2009

    Jimmy,

    This is simply inexcusable.

    Furthermore, I think Longstreet would be appalled as well.

    I’m curious, was there any reaction from those watching?

  • Jimmy Price May 27, 2009

    Bob,

    Believe it or not, most people in the crowd laughed and cheered the Confederates as they “marched” towards the cemetery.

    Alas, my attempts to stare through them as they came up were in vain…

  • Bob Pollock May 27, 2009

    Just about makes me want to cry and fear for the future of my country.

    Then again, maybe we have come so far that we’d all rather laugh than cry. If the SCV wants to embrace multiculturalism and wear CSA battle flag bikinis, then maybe there is nothing to argue about.

    Yet, when I find websites with pictures of modern warplanes featuring the CSA battle flag, and listen to elected officials talk about secession, it suddenly doesn’t seem like a laughing matter.

  • Mike May 28, 2009

    What you expect Jimmy?? Those in the “lost cause” camp have been abused; derailed and verbally beat on to the point they care not about the other side’s feelings anymore. As for marching in first contact the Memorial Organizers. I for one would love the see the sniping and anger go away and let all involved work toward finding the Truth with malice toward none and charity for all.

  • Jimmy Price Jun 1, 2009

    Mike,

    From 1994-2006 I re-enacted with a Confederate group based out of Richmond, so I got to see these members of the “Lost Cause camp” up close and in person over an extended period of time. To say that they were abused or verbally beaten is patently absurd. They always got the loudest cheers from the crowd of spectators and apparently still do. Indeed, it seemed like they were always the ones with the chip on their shoulder, longing to be able to start a war of words just so they could bash Lincoln or talk about how stupid “Yankees” are. And let’s not even delve into their opinions of African-Americans. So pardon me for not having much sympathy towards this group — especially when they were dishonoring the guys who did the real fighting and dying. I couldn’t agree more with your words from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, but that sword cuts both ways, don’t you think?

    Oh, and don’t worry — my complaints about them marching first have been registered ;-)

  • David Tatum Jun 6, 2009

    Hi Kevin.

    As an S.C.V. member I agree our days are numbered. And when we pass who will be left to tell the truth? Its very hard to break tradition!
    I am a member of the Tom Smith Camp in Suffolk VA.( Ball park 175 members)
    For the most part its , Meet, Eat,and Retreat, very few members show up to meetings.
    And even fewer to Fund raising events.

    I love C-Ville, I worked as a safety Manager at ” THE EMPTY ARMS HOTEL”
    Thats a shame, a great location and an unfinished hotel marring a beautiful mall.

    I was Impressed with the statues of Lee and Jackson a few blocks over.

    But back to the subject, As S.C.V. members it is hard to move foward while clinging so hard to the past. The influx of new members is low. But I will give every effort to Honor they who wore the Gray.

    Thanks for the chance to say hello

    Respectfully yours

    Dave Tatum

    • Lindsay Feb 13, 2012

      I would also add that while there are still a core group that fall into the category that you’re speaking of in this post, there are those of us who are joining chapters who have a more open-mind, and aren’t stuck in denial of core issues, who are looking at the war and its history from multiple angles. It is my hope that with newer generations becoming involved much of the (sometimes well-deserved) criticisms of these organizations will start to trickle out. It is also my hope that there are those out there like me, that are involved in the UDC/SCV not to promote “The Lost Cause” per say, but to help others through service, honor my family’s heritage and history, and promote the preservation of that history.

      My UDC chapter’s efforts to support today’s veterans in and around our area is endless and there are many organizations that without our help would not have the resources they need…the work that myself and these women do is out of the goodness of our hearts, not to make a political statement.

      Additionally, their efforts to preserve Confederate history are invaluable and ever-reaching and I agree with a previous poster, if not the UDC/SCV, who will be left to preserve them?

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