Almost Moved to Tears in Fredericksburg, Virginia

I am delighted to hear that residents of Fredericksburg, Virginia have resurrected a civic ceremony that was lost as a result of reunion between white Northern and former Confederates.  For a number of years after the war the black residents of the city took part in annual marches on Decoration Day to the cemetery to commemorate the bravery of United States soldiers and the cause for which they fought.  Those early commemorations constituted a living reminder that the war had profound results for millions of slaves and that its memory would be incomplete without the acknowledgment of emancipation and freedom.

As we all know, however, our own commemorative choices are never simply about the past.  They are often reflections of our current political, cultural, and social concerns and this can clearly be discerned in some of the personal reflections of those who attended yesterday.  I was struck by the attention to current racial politics.  The assumption or hope seems to be that the resurrection of this particular practice may reveal common ground for the healing of racial divisions in the community.

Mimi Dempsey of Spotsylvania County said she was “almost moved to tears, to be honest” by the march and her conversations along the way with fellow participants.  “I realized that it’s not over. We’re working through this,” Dempsey said upon reaching the Willis Hill end of Marye’s Heights. “So I am excited to be part of healing of this historical pain, I guess I’d say.

“In my estimation, today’s observance of Memorial Day at this ceremony marks the completion of at least the structure for the reconciliation process for all the people of this area,” [Rev. Lawrence] Davies said.

I hope so as well, but I am left wondering how exactly such a ceremony would accomplish this, especially given the fact that racial reconciliation was probably not high on the agenda of those who initially took part in this event.  I imagine black marchers wondering whether their newly won freedom would last or how expansive their rights as citizens would be.  My concern is that such a priority runs the risk of once again falling victim to the pull of reunion at the expense of maintaining focus on the original object of the march.

The question for me boils down to whether yesterday’s event was a reenactment or continuation of the original marches.  It makes a difference.  A reenactment leaves sufficient room to distance oneself from having to embrace the agenda of the ceremony while a continuation implies its embrace.  To the extent that it is a case of the latter there is the rub of raising the uncomfortable point that for a substantial portion of the population during the immediate postwar period United States and Confederate soldiers fought for different goals.  Another way of making the point is to say that after 1862 the outcome of the war would have a very different meaning for millions of Americans depending on which side proved victorious.  The inevitable tension stands in sharp contrast to our tendency to gloss over such distinctions and embrace the common Memorial Day refrain that all Civil War soldiers deserve to be commemorated.

Perhaps this event will make it possible to move forward on the racial front in Fredericksburg.  I’ve been surprised on numerous occasions since the start of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  What I do know is that today is one of those days where I wish I didn’t have to read about what is going on in Virginia.

[Image credit: Fredericksburg Remembered]

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60 comments… add one

  • James Harrigan May 29, 2012

    What a great news item, I wish I had been there to take part in the march. But this little detail stood out for me:
    The marchers were trailed by several members of the Virginia Flaggers, a Southern heritage group, carrying Confederate battle flags and the bonnie blue flag—unofficial banner of the Confederate States of America. Other flaggers awaited the procession on Lafayette Boulevard near the park’s Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center.
    I would love to know the motivation of the “flaggers” in showing up for this event.

    • Kevin Levin May 29, 2012

      I could have commented on them, but I wanted to keep the focus of the post on what really mattered. From what I hear the Flaggers were respectful throughout, but I cannot speak to their motivation.

    • Billy Bearden May 30, 2012

      One of the fellows at the NPS FBV center had a professionally made sign that said ‘Welcome USCT”

  • Ryan Quint May 29, 2012

    I was there, and from my perspective, whether or not it was a reenactment depended on the person marching. There were those marching for the sentimentality, and others marching just to go for a walk on Memorial Day. There were some dressed up in 19th-Century Civilian clothes, and others, like myself, in shorts and a t-shirt. As for the Virginia Flaggers, they did not say or yell anything, that I could hear. Within the column itself they weren’t welcome; one woman said she was ‘infuriated’ by their presence. I want to know why they followed a march meant to commemorate a multiracial march from 1871. In their own words from Facebook, it was to ‘advance the colors of their ancestors on Memorial Day,’ however, just a couple blocks from the march was the Confederate Cemetery, which had its own ceremony and moments of silence. They would have fit in better there.

    • Billy Bearden May 30, 2012

      “I want to know why they followed a march meant to commemorate a multiracial march from 1871. … just a couple blocks from the march was the Confederate Cemetery, which had its own ceremony and moments of silence. They would have fit in better there.”

      I read the media articles by Mr Schemmer of the Free Lance Star, I hear the terms ‘multiracial’ and ‘reconciliation’ and I see the photo above, and have to wonder why you even comment except to be segregationist.

      My 1st ever SCV event was to participate in a parade in Hampton, Va. It was May of 2001, and the Camp was invited by Gerri Hollins to march in her 3rd annual parade from Phoebus to Ft Monroe parade grounds.

      The parade was for the Contraband Historical Society and Ms Hollins is the President. The parade was led by the 54th Mass USCT Regt (before Glory) and was followed by the 5th Texas Regt CSA.

      The mission that day was reconciliation and multiracial.

      I fell in the rear with my son, I was carrying a 2nd National and my son holding a stick CBF.

      On the parade grounds, the 54th was on Ms Hollins left, 5th Texas on right. In the audience was local dignitaries, the director of the USCT reenactors and Jeb Stuart 4th. All period flags were present.

      Ms Hollins sang Battle Hymn and Dixie. She has a very beautiful voice. Her message was we all have shared heritage and history as Americans.

      You do not see the Flaggers promoting segregation. Memorial Day is for ALL American Veterans.

      Shame on you!

    • Andy Hall May 30, 2012

      In their own words from Facebook, it was to ‘advance the colors of their ancestors on Memorial Day,’ however, just a couple blocks from the march was the Confederate Cemetery, which had its own ceremony and moments of silence. They would have fit in better there.

      Hathaway said on Facebook they couldn’t attend the Confederate ceremony because they had to move on the Richmond for another event there. So much for all the dozens of Flaggers we keep hearing about; they couldn’t cover two separate events held at the same time.

      The bottom line is that the Flaggers, and the Southron Heritage crowd generally, want it both ways. They insist on being recognized as being separate and distinct in terms of heritage, nationality and culture, but also fully incorporated into the larger context as United States citizens as well. They want everyone to acknowledge Confederate Memorial Day, but also (as here) insist on being recognized as Confederates on the holiday originally created to honor the dead of the Union. If someone suggests that the Confederates of 1861-65 were disloyal or somehow un-American, they’ll cite a 1950s act of Congress that formally granted U.S. veteran status to former Confederates — but they’ll bitch if someone puts a U.S. flag on a Confederate’s grave for Memorial Day.

      The goal of the Flaggers, simply put, is to inject themselves anywhere and everywhere they can, and make a name for themselves. They don’t have many actual accomplishments to point to, but they’re good at getting headlines, even if they have to do a little misrepresentation to pull it off.

      Although it’s a Texas event in its historical origin, a lot of places elsewhere celebrate Juneteenth. Is there a Juneteenth celebration in Richmond? Because the Flaggers really ought to turn out in large numbers for that one. After all, as Billy says, the Confederacy and the Flaggers are all about inclusion and diversity and racial harmony, amiright?

  • Betty Giragosian May 30, 2012

    I don’t think the Flaggers belonged there. They were not invited to participate, and were only going to stand quietly by–so I r

  • John Cummings May 30, 2012

    Kevin,
    As the Captain of the 23rd USCT, serving as color guard for the procession, I can assure you this event was not a “reenactment”. It was the first of what we plan as an annual event that is in commemoration of the post-war marches. I can not speak for all who accompanied us along the way, but as for myself and the organizers, this was, and will continue to be, a heartfelt and genuine occassion in the spirit that was intended.

    John Cummings

    • Kevin Levin May 30, 2012

      Hi John,

      First, thanks for all the work that went into this event and for your participation.

      … I can assure you this event was not a “reenactment”. It was the first of what we plan as an annual event that is in commemoration of the post-war marches.

      I don’t doubt your sincerity here, but I wonder whether such a sharp distinction can be drawn between a reenactment and commemoration given the time lapse. Wish I could have been there.

      • John Cummings May 30, 2012

        Kevin,

        The distinction comes when, despite our wearing the uniforms, no one is pretending it’s 1871. We portray the men of the 23rd and honor them, but in an occassion such as this we were not play acting. Space and time does not diminish the sentiment or purpose.

        • Kevin Levin May 30, 2012

          … but in an occassion such as this we were not play acting.

          I was not implying this at all. I am not even challenging the sincerity of the participants. In fact, I think commemorative events like this are a breadth of fresh air because they do remind us lost or suppressed memories. I am simply suggesting that there may not be a sharp distinction between a commemoration and reenactment.

          • Peter Howes Oct 21, 2012

            “The question for me boils down to whether yesterday’s event was a reenactment or continuation of the original marches. It makes a difference. A reenactment leaves sufficient room to distance oneself from having to embrace the agenda of the ceremony while a continuation implies its embrace…”

            This is a great topic of discussion, and it is fantastic that there are people interested enough to bring these thing up via the web. I am responding to Mr. Levin, and Mr. Cummings, particularly regarding the distinction between a reenactment and a continuation.
            To me, it does not sound like the event that Mr. Cummings participated in / orchestrated was a reenactment in the way that most of us think of that term. After reading Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, I think those individuals participating often draw a distinction between reenactments and commemorations. But often the two are united in one event. A commemoration of a “post-war march” seems to me to be a continuation of belief, rather than a demonstration of historical events. I do not think an individual has to believe to reenact, but a citizen (maybe a uniformed one) has to believe in what he is commemorating.
            Whether or not choosing to celebrate the just the CSA is appropriate, or “right” is another topic. We must memorialize ALL of those soldiers that died in the civil war, that is our social responsibility. But I see no point in differentiating and segregating. Their sacrifices and struggles lead to our modern nation, which ordains us the power to celebrate, march for, and blog-about our opinions. So regardless of affiliation we should all celebrate the fallen Confederates, and Union soldiers. (But go for it you want to march in uniform, because you have that right, I just think we should mourn all of our losses.) But I’m beginning to get off topic…

            -Pete

            • Kevin Levin Oct 21, 2012

              You said:

              We must memorialize ALL of those soldiers that died in the civil war, that is our social responsibility. But I see no point in differentiating and segregating. Their sacrifices and struggles lead to our modern nation, which ordains us the power to celebrate, march for, and blog-about our opinions. So regardless of affiliation we should all celebrate the fallen Confederates, and Union soldiers.

              Should we do so by ignoring the fact that the government which Confederate soldiers fought to establish had the perpetuation of slavery and white supremacy as its overarching goal? If so, then we are back to the problem spelled out by David Blight.

              • Peter Howes Oct 21, 2012

                That was not the point I was trying to make, exactly. But you are right; we can’t ignore history. So we must educate ourselves and realize that the secessionist states are responsible for nearly 600,000 American lives, and followed perhaps the worst cause in American History. But we should still mourn the loss of so many people. It was wrong, but still an undoubtedly tragic event.

  • Forester May 31, 2012

    I’m a little confused — are the Rebs walking behind the USCTs “flaggers” or an official part of the procession?

    I do like the idea of Northern and Southern descendants having an event together, without focusing on divisive politics. Though I’m also a white Reb descendant … I’m not sure if black people ever really could look at Reb uniforms/flags without feeling discriminated against. I could never abide a WWII event that had swastikas, to put it in perspective, and I suspect they feel the same way about the CBF. If I were there representing my ancestry in CS uniform with flags, I’d feel a might awkward. :-/

    • Andy Hall May 31, 2012

      They were not formally part of the procession, which was apparently somewhat informal to begin with. They crashed it. According to Ryan (above) they were not well received by the other participants.

      It makes sense, though, once you understand that the Flaggers’ first priority is to generate publicity for themselves. They have a long record of manufacturing confrontations (like that with the UDC) to establish their bona fides within their small circle of make-believe Confederate fans. By “forwarding the colours” at that specific event they were virtually guaranteed to make the papers. Mission accomplished!

      If I were there representing my ancestry in CS uniform with flags, I’d feel a might awkward.

      I rather doubt you (or most other CS reenactors) would even think about participating, given that the march commemorated an historical event that happened years after the end of the conflict. Real Confederates had no involvement with the historical event at all. But then again, the Flaggers aren’t about history to begin with.

  • Ashley King Oct 21, 2012

    Many people who have read this blog entry seem to gravitate towards the question of race and the difference between continuing the acts of memorialization and remembering these acts. However, the question that first came to my mind after reading this post was the idea that many people romanticize and glorify the war. Of course the first decoration days the country celebrated were to remember and mourn the great loss of soldiers in the war and commemorate the fact that they fought for something they believed in. In the North especially, people declared that they had saved the country thought it was terrible that so much death had to occur to do so. However, in subsequent years the citizens who celebrated Decoration Day and eventually Memorial Day, seem to glamorize the war and the soldiers who gave their lives during it.
    For example, in David Blight’s piece, The Origins of Memorial Day in the North and South, he talks about a monument dedication where the speaker spoke of the heroic devotion soldiers showed in defense of their country and how they left mothers and orphans behind to give their lives, which was necessary to win the war. He continues to say, “May the soldier’s children never prove unworthy of their father’s name, let them be willing to shed their blood, to lay down their lives, for the sake of their country.” If I were a child who lost my father in the Civil War and heard someone saying that to me, I would want to prove myself as brave and heroic as he, willing a war to break out to present an opportunity to do so. Though this is much more dramatic than the march to the cemetery that the people of Fredericksburg, Virginia take part in, this recent commemoration could be thought of as a further attempt to romanticize a war that was anything but romantic. People, some dressed in Civil War garb, marching proudly to a cemetery to honor the memory of the soldiers who died in the war, it could make people think that only through brutal loss of life can make soldiers immortalized as heroes. I asked my cousin, who is in the United States Army, why he felt he needed to serve his country by putting his life on the line. His answer was that he wanted to experience the glory and the heroic status that soldiers receive when they protect their country. I don’t mean to say that joining the military or protecting ones country is bad, but I do think that honoring the dead in this way makes people think of war in romantic ways, when it clearly is not romantic in any way.
    Finally, in regard to the re-enacting verses commemorating debate, I believe that commemorating romanticized war far more than re-enacting. I believe that re-enacting would give people a true impression of the horrors and difficulties of war, while commemorating simply bathes the dead who lost their lives in the war in a heroic and angelic light.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 21, 2012

      Hi Ashley,

      You make a really good point about how we remember and commemorate the war. Much of our Civil War memory does romanticize war and I worry a great deal about this, especially given the fact that this nation has been at war for the past ten years. Just go to any Civil War battlefield gift shop. The general public never really felt the impact of war; rather, it was felt by relatively few families who went through the ordeal of multiple deployments. Early in the Iraq War the government tried to prevent the press from taking photographs of returned coffins. We should be thinking about the Civil War in ways that help us to better understand what it means for a nation to be at war rather than commemorating it from a distance. Even the event in Fredericksburg smacks of a romantic veneer. Perhaps at this point in time it is unavoidable, but when I teach the subject I want my students to think critically about the tough questions.

  • Evan Shalat Oct 21, 2012

    Mr. Levin,
    You open your blog post with the statement that you are “delighted” about the reinstatement of this Decoration Day ceremony in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and then you go on to point out that you are not sure how such an event would accomplish its goal of eradicating racial tensions. These tensions have been prevalent in Virginia for some time now and it seems unlikely that one event that included participants of black and white races would be able to make much of a difference in this field, though it is a good start. However, this ceremony also brings back old tensions to the residents of the area, as is manifested by the fact that you are writing this blog about this controversial event. You state in your blog that you hope that this event will be helpful in erasing racial tensions, but do you really think it will be?
    In your post you quote two people who generally see this event as a positive sign for the city, and one of them even comments about how happy she is to “‘be part of healing of this historical pain.’” What I would like to know is, what races are these two people? If they are of two different races, perhaps this does show some progress in terms of the agreement to racial reconciliation. One of them is also a reverend; did he have any role in planning or organizing this event or any others in the city that might be conducive to the elimination of racial tensions?
    You also state that you believe that “racial reconciliation was probably not high on the agenda of those who initially took part in this event.” While this may be true, reconciliation in general was certainly a prominent theme in early Decoration Day ceremonies. In David Blight’s article, “Decoration Days: The Origins of Memorial Day in North and South,” he comments that “the origins of this important American day of remembrance is central to understanding how the reconciliationist legacies of the Civil War overtook the emancipationist ones.” Though perhaps race was not the first thing to be reconciled by the original participants of these ceremonies, reconciliation of sides, between the North and South, was foremost in their minds. Blight also states that “black South Carolinians and their Northern white abolitionist allies” began Decoration Day; the fact that two races worked together to start Decoration Day is an indicator that perhaps racial reconciliation was important to them after all.
    As for whether this event in Fredericksburg Virginia was a reenactment or continuation of the original marches, personally I would never think to say it was a reenactment. Having read sections of Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, I am fairly certain that those who participated in Fredericksburg’s ceremony would have been called “farbs” by any of the re-enactors Horwitz mentions, if they even were trying to reenact the scene in the first place. The citizens who participated in the march do not seem to me to want to convince others that they are living in the 1800s, but merely to celebrate the historical event and to mourn those who have been lost in wars for centuries. They appear to be only commemorating, not re-enacting.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 21, 2012

      Hi Evan,

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. I certainly don’t believe that one event (or any number of events for that matter) can heal any lingering racial tensions in Fredericksburg. What I look for in commemorative events are opportunities for people from different backgrounds with competing memories of the past to interact with one another. You are certainly correct in pointing out the dangers of exposing rifts that lead to problems. Just imagine if the Confederate reenactors in the rear had decided to carry the Confederate flag.

      Early Decoration Day ceremonies were highly partisan affairs, though Blight does trace them to what he sees as a triumphant reconciliationist embrace by the end of the century. The important thing to keep in mind about Fredericksburg is that the first few celebrations included the African-American community, which would have alienated the local white southern population as well as Confederate veterans. It was only after Union and Confederate veterans shared the moment that blacks stopped participating. Commemorative events at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond were fraught with controversy during Reconstruction. Union authorities did not want to see Confederate veterans celebrating their dead, especially while in uniform. The point is that the memorialization of the Civil War dead was highly contentious. Two recent studies that are worth looking at, in large part in response to David Blight, include John Neff’s Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation and William Blair’s Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1864-1914. That Union veterans came together with former slaves does serve as a reminder of just how important emancipation was to their understanding of the war’s significance.

      You may be right that Horowitz’s friends would not have been impressed with the participants in the F-burg ceremony. Than again, I wouldn’t put much stock in their assessment. I tend to see it as a reenactment and an attempt to remind the community of a lost narrative/memory of the war. No harm done and like I said earlier there is the potential for meaningful communication.

      Thanks again for the comment.

  • Jean-Paul Choe Oct 21, 2012

    Jean-Paul Choe

    It’s incredible that how the residents of Fredericksburg remembered the beginnings of Decoration Day and its origins in the post-civil war era. I doubt that many people today would have remembered the origins of Memorial Day and its origins in Decoration Day. It’s interesting how the very origins of a national holiday that commemorates the brave men and women who fought for America started off as a day founded by African-Americans in the late 1860’s as David Blight says “a ritual of remembrance and consecration devoted to those who had fought and died on behalf of the emancipation effort.” (David Blight, The origins of Memorial Day in the North and South)
    Decoration day was resurrected in Fredericksburg, Virginia by marchers who participated in commemorating the union soldiers who fought for emancipation but also “neo” confederate flaggers who followed the procession and planted confederate flags on confederate soldiers graves. This incident did bring up some controversy between the marchers who participated and people who witnessed this. I understand why this would upset some people. The origins of Decoration Day were to commemorate the union soldiers who fought for emancipation but then “neo” confederate flaggers joined them and marched along during the procession to the cemetery and planted confederate flags at the gravesites of fallen southern soldier joined them.
    I understand how this would agitate some people. People commemorating how the union soldiers fought for emancipation joined with people commemorating confederate soldiers who fought for their right to keep African-American as slaves. If the ceremony was to celebrate the origins of Decoration Day where African-Americans celebrated the union soldiers who fought for the emancipation effort than the flaggers had no right to be there and accompany the ceremony.
    If the “neo” confederate flaggers were to hold a ceremony to honor the confederates who fought during the war, that is fine but they shouldn’t of tagged along a procession honoring the emancipation effort. It could be viewed that the flaggers could be insensitive about the civil war and what happened.
    I honestly believe that the flaggers didn’t mean to stir up any turmoil about following the Decoration Day procession. I believe that it is great that people now remember the civil war and commemorate the people who fought, even though it was a time where the nation was divided, the nation was eventually reunited and became one again.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 21, 2012

      Hi Jean-Paul,

      Thanks for the comment. I tend to think that Blight makes too big a deal about African Americans engaging in the first Decoration Day ceremony in Charleston, South Carolina. Whether they did or not is not as important as the fact that they were active early on in reminding the nation of the importance of emancipation, which, of course, is his point.

      The problems you reference typically arise when people see themselves as continuing the fights of the 1860s rather than engaging in a healthy commemoration informed by sound historical understanding. That, unfortunately, is often in short supply. We need to be able to commemorate/remember the past without re-fighting the war. That is easily said than done. Do we expect African Americans to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers? Should Confederate soldier graves be decorated at all given the cause for which they fought? I tend to think that people should feel free to do so if they deem it to be necessary, but I don’t believe they should expect that others (black, white, Northerners, Southerners) should give it legitimacy.

      The Flaggers are a very small group who speak only for themselves. Their agenda extends no further than controversies surrounding the display of the Confederate flag. As far as I can tell they do not embody a coherent perspective on how the war ought to be remembered/commemorated.

  • Alicia Pierce Oct 21, 2012

    In the period immediately following the Civil War Americans were fraught with the task of deciding how best to memorialize the War Between the States. The United States, particularly in its Southern region, was left broken and derelict; over 600,000 men and women died, homes were burnt to the ground, and veterans who had survived were left demoralized and exhausted after the fighting. The emergence of Decoration Day came as a form of remembrance. It was a way for African Americans to, as you say Kevin Levin, “commemorate the bravery of United States soldiers and the cause for which they fought.” The notion of Americans wishing to honor those who have fallen seems harmless, even noble, however, where conflict arises is in the point that these African Americans were commemorating those who fell for the cause of emancipation and in doing so inertly condemning those who stood against it.

    As the Civil War ended and the South became increasingly aware of their loss, both literally and symbolically, acts such as Decoration Day seemed disrespectful and in some respects boastful of Northern and emancipationist victory, particularly when held on Southern ground. Former confederates maintained the belief that though the South may not have emerged victorious from the fighting, their cause was just and their effort valiant. Though one can see how the choice African Americans involved in Decoration Day made (in honoring a select few) may have upset others, those who feel this discontentment allow their denial of absolute confederate loss to overshadow the remembrance of struggles former slaves and freedmen endured before the Civil War.

    The march in Fredericksburg, Virginia seemed a continuation of the original marches held during Reconstruction. The Decoration Day marchers were there to mourn those who had fallen for the cause of emancipation and pay homage to the lives sacrificed for their own; the ‘Flaggers’, who subsequently followed the marchers, were there to pay homage to the sacrifices of the Confederate soldiers who died upholding Southern ideals, including that of slavery. Almost 150 years after the signing at Appomattox, the Emancipation Proclamation and the adoption of Fourteenth Amendment, it seems implausible that American citizens would still remain divided across the Mason Dixon Line. However, as evident by the tension in Fredericksburg, the Civil War remains a divisive issue in what is now exclusive to American memory.

    For African Americans, the period after the Civil War was a time to mourn those who had fallen in the attempt to secure better lives for future generations. However, to the Southern soldier, Decoration Day was counterproductive to the cause of reconciliation. Rather than linger on slavery and the war, in the eyes of many a Southerner it was time for African Americans to move on if there was to be any progression in the union and reconciliation. It was time to stop pointing the finger at the South. As you state, Decoration Day was soon lost to Memorial Day as a result of, “reunion between white Northern and former Confederates,” was it easier for the purposes of reconciliation to just ignore the issue of racism plaguing Americans? Moreover, is the national embrace of Memorial Day merely a front for which to forget the racial divisions and motivations of the Civil War? And, if a peaceful remembrance ceremony in Virginia can spark so much controversy, to what extent do you consider the Civil War to still be personally affecting Americans today?

    • Kevin Levin Oct 23, 2012

      The majority of Americans’ memory of their history extends about two weeks into the past. It’s probably not a priority for most people.

      Blight would surely agree that ignoring issues of race and slavery was essential to reconciliation, but in recent years a number of historians have challenged this assumption. Veterans organizations such as the GAR were interracial. Early regimental histories from the Union army continued to acknowledge emancipation as an important consequence of the war. The national embrace of Memorial Day seems to be more a matter of embracing the dead from subsequent wars as opposed to a conscious effort to marginalize aspects of the Civil War.

  • Ileana Paules-Bronet Oct 21, 2012

    With an issue as large and emotionally charged as the Civil War, it is hard to look at anything people do or say about it subjectively. In a time when most people think we have moved on from the Civil War and its issues, it is easy to look past some of the deeper meanings of the memorial celebrations and ceremonies. Yet all these ceremonies came from somewhere – they all have meaning and they all inherently were formed to support certain causes or certain memories.
    Decoration Day, now Memorial Day, is one such occasion. Because Decoration Day was started by Southern African Americans to remember and honor the Union soldiers who fought for them, it seems only right that, even 150 years later, it should still reflect the initial reasoning for the day. For the people who began the tradition, the day was, according to David Blight, a “festival of freedom.” The idea of Memorial Day as we know it today is slightly different than Decoration Day; Memorial Day remembers all soldiers who fought, Northern and Southern, Union and Confederate. It is a day to honor them for fighting, not necessarily to honor the cause they were fighting for. This is where Memorial and Decoration Day differ though; Decoration Day was specifically meant to honor the Union soldiers who fought for freedom of the slaves.
    For this reason, I think the Confederate Flaggers were out of place at the Decoration Day march in Fredericksburg. The marchers were clearly honoring the same events and emotions as the marchers were immediately after the war, and the Flaggers were not. The fact that this was a commemoration, not a reenactment, gives this more significance. The Flaggers who showed up were not there to try to make a difference in the opinions of the marchers, or even to make a big show, but it seems as though they were there to essentially “rain on the parade” of the marchers. The presence of the Flaggers did nothing but anger people, and that may have been their purpose – otherwise, if they were indeed trying to honor fallen Confederate soldiers, why wouldn’t they have just gone to the Confederate cemetery where they would have been accepted and not hurting the cause of the Decoration Day marchers?
    The marchers recognized that the march was about honor and memory, not necessarily about the festivities about having beaten those who were previously putting them in pain anymore. The Flaggers showing up at the march undermines this recognition of having moved on from pain – it brings up those same feelings of hurt and hate that had just been undertones before. It doesn’t seem as though the Flaggers had any purpose in being at the march, not that they didn’t have the right, but what was the point of them joining in? Was there a specific reason they chose to show up and disrupt the Decoration Day march as opposed to just commemorating at a Confederate cemetery instead?

    • Kevin Levin Oct 28, 2012

      Hi Ileana,

      You make some very good points, but I don’t place as much weight on who was the first to practice what came to be called Decoration Day. Various groups had different reasons for remembering fallen soldiers. The important point that Blight makes is in reminding us that former slaves did take steps to commemorate the sacrifice of Union soldiers and why it had been forgotten for so long.

      As I’ve said elsewhere, I tend to agree with you re: the intention of the flaggers.

    • Billy Bearden Oct 29, 2012

      The Flaggers were invited to participate by a member of a local reenactor group. The Flaggers were well received by the onlookers and fellow participants. The numerous requests for pix, thumbs up, statements of thanks, and salutes emphasized this point. However, it appears just 3 people had a ‘problem’ with the Flaggers, and they are all mentioned on this blog.

      • Betty Giragosian Oct 29, 2012

        It was my understanding that the Memorial Service which was held at the National Cemetery in Fredericksburg this past Memorial Day, 2012 was not a re-enactment, but the outgrowth of the original service held a few years after The War Between the States had ended. The orginal service was to honor those Union Soldiers who had fallen in battle. It was begun by former slaves, to remember and honor those that had brought freedom to them. AND, THEY WERE FREE. Slavery was not the cause of the War, but in the end, the slaves were freed. The Confederacy was gone, the War having ended in its defeat. It was over. Sadly, there was no more Confederacy.

        Former slaves and whites joined together in this Service. It was held for a number of years.

        If the ‘flaggers” were invited by a reenactor group, I assume, local, why were they not present? Why should they invite them and not show up themselves?

        I seem to recall reading somewhere, a message to the “flaggers’ telling of this ceremony,
        to attend, bearing the Confederate Battle Flag, as well as the others, to stand by quietly, saying nothing, and it would be a good way to get some publicity. Not a word about remembering the soldiers–oh but why would they honor Union soldiers. There were two Confederate Memorial Services not far way–oh, could one of hose be the service the ‘flaggers’ were invited to attend? That would have been the proper place
        for them to be.

        Instead, they pushed themselves into a Memorial Service where they did not belong, waving the Confederate Flag in a place where the Confederacy no longer existed at the time of its inaugural. It was an insult, not only to the organizers, but
        also to our Confederate Battle flag. It should never have been used in such a manner,

        Betty Giragosian

        • Andy Hall Oct 29, 2012

          Once you understand that the Flaggers’ main objective is self-promotion, it makes a lot more sense. Displaying Confederate flags in a Confederate cemetery to honor Confederate veterans? Not news. Marching with Confederate flags in a procession commemorating an event originally organized by freedmen to honor the Union dead? Yeah, that’ll make the papers.

          The Flaggers are full of all sorts of self-righteous posturing when it comes to the practice followed in some places, to place U.S. flags on Confederate soldiers’ graves, along the lines that there is “no greater insult than to put the flag of a man’s enemy on his grave,” etc. Funny, how they don’t seem to think that same principle applies to them in the case of this procession.

          Sure, the Flaggers *could* have put their flags back in the truck and done what most other participants did, and simply follow the march as other citizens did. But then, if they’d done that, folks might not have recognized them as Flaggers, and that kinda defeats the (true) purpose of “flagging,” you know?

  • Lily Wiener Oct 21, 2012

    Given the nature of the division between the Union and the Confederacy during the time leading up to and during the Civil War, one could easily see the tensions lasting beyond the Civil War and even the Reconstruction period, which it has, as Ms, Dempsey says. Without any expansive general view of the Civil War, both sides will continue to see different sides of the same coin. In order to commemorate the war immediately following it, the original intention of the Decoration Days, which was for African Americans to honour the soldiers who fought for the Union was lost when they were barred from the ceremony in attempts by the North and the South to “bridge their differences”. This was done in the common sense of racism against the Blacks which dominated the society for essentially the next century following the war. What was supposed to be beginning of equality for the blacks was actually just the beginning of a furthered period of racism.
    As there continued to be conflicting visions of the war, each side would fight for dominance in the fight for recognition of their cause, whether it was the Flaggers wanting recognition for the Confederate soldiers who fought, or the descendants of Union soldiers. Blight states in his article The Origins of Memorial Day, that “…those who remembered the war as the rebirth of the republic in the name of racial equality would continue to do battle with the growing number who would remember it as the nation’s test of manhood and the South’s struggle to maintain white supremacy.” As is stated, commemorative choices reflecting on the current political and social concerns show that this battle is still the case as the fight is still being fought to recognize both sides without acknowledging which side was ‘more just’ or ‘more right’ than the other.
    An event to commemorate the war, at this point, is difficult to write about because of all the conflicting opinions that still surround the Civil War. The idea that there are still these tensions that have existed since the war creates the idea of two differing perspectives on the war that an event will simply perpetuate. That said, having these “Flaggers” appear does not mean that they are not welcome to support their cause. It just means that the differing views will only cause controversy and uproar. Each person is entitled to his or her own view of the war, as no view should be forced upon another, but the problem exists that Confederate supporters are still largely viewed as people who are white supremacists. This is not to say that all Confederates supporters are all white supremacists, nor is it to say that there are no white supremacists among these supporters.
    The idea of these Decoration Days soon turned into not just honouring the soldiers of the Civil War, but of any war. With this idea in mind, it becomes hard to only believe in the separations defined by the Civil War, as the holiday is to honour every soldier’s valour and bravery. While this idea may glorify the war, it provides a way for soldiers and veterans to know that they have support, and for loved ones who have lost someone to mourn. The idea that “the completion of at least the structure for the reconciliation process…” as the keynote speaker said is contested by the idea that no one event or any number of events can heal the lingering racial tensions. This begs the question can these tensions ever be fixed? It has been 150 years since the war and yet tensions definitely still linger in areas like Fredericksburg and beyond. Amidst all the conflicting views, opinions, and groups, can there be any reconciliation or are there too many conflicts to create it yet?

    • Kevin Levin Oct 22, 2012

      Hi Lily,

      Thanks for the comment. There is no question that as a nation we are still working through many of the racial legacies of the Civil War. At the same time I think it is important to acknowledge how far we’ve come as a nation. That sounds cliche, but it is important given that many of these stories are reported in a way that leaves us with the impression that very little has changed. An event such as this is unimaginable just a few decades ago. To the larger point, the Civil War sesquicentennial has highlighted the extent of the change in our collective memory since the centennial of the early 1960s. Museum exhibits reflect recent scholarly shifts and events across the country are now addressing some of the tough questions of the Civil War surrounding race and slavery. Schools now have access to resources that impart a much broader understanding of the war to their students. I could go on, but you get the point.

      I would also suggest not making too much of the Flaggers. They are a very small group, whose goals extend no further than making sure that the Confederate flag be displayed in prominent places. The majority are older, which reflects a broader generational shift in re: to Civil War memory that is all too often ignored. You said:

      This begs the question can these tensions ever be fixed? It has been 150 years since the war and yet tensions definitely still linger in areas like Fredericksburg and beyond. Amidst all the conflicting views, opinions, and groups, can there be any reconciliation or are there too many conflicts to create it yet?

      Whether we can “fix” anything is in large part dependent on how we as Americans choose to remember and in that regard I am very optimistic.

      • Lily Wiener Oct 28, 2012

        In regards to the Flaggers and the generational shifts, I think that like most periods, older generations will have different explanations and ways of thinking of the past. They could show their honour in many different ways, some of which may not seem acceptable today, but would have been, say twenty years ago. For a large part, memory does play a huge part in how one chooses to teach and retell history, right back to the 1870’s when the South wanted to make sure that they were not overly victimized or treated unfairly in terms of the education of their children. They wanted to be sure that they were remembered in the proper way, free of bias.

        I feel that with a lot of history, especially controversial history, there is always a slight amount of bias that tinges the history. That being said, time changes one’s view as well. As you said, is an extremely different view of the sesquicentennial rather than the centennial even just because of the differences in racial equality now. While the Flaggers are a small group, they are just an example that shows how people choose to remember and honour things.

        While history and memory remain sometimes at odds with each other, depending upon one’s viewpoint, there is a point at which the two come together to form a bond in remembering the soldiers that fell. It isn’t that the two don’t mix well, it’s that there is often a discrepancy in what people usually believe.

        • Kevin Levin Oct 28, 2012

          Good points. There is always going to be some tension between personal/collective memory and history. When we do history there is at least a conscious attempt to tell an objective story. Commemorations and heritage accounts tend to have some kind of vindication or justification as their goal. We need both.

  • Nathaniel Coffey Oct 21, 2012

    Hi Mr. Levin,

    When I first learned of the recent march in Fredericksburg, I was not exactly sure what to make of it. Were the citizens marching simply to pay homage to their ancestors? Or were some attempting to point out flaws in our society? As you pointed out in your article, “our own commemorative choices are never simply about the past”. At first, this worried me into thinking that there could still possibly be some animosity between races in areas where the memory of the Civil War remains strong. After reading your article a second time however, I am convinced that the march was simply a proud sign of respect to not only the freed slaves, but to the soldiers who died for their respective causes.

    I would not dub the march as a reenactment because I believe that the citizens who participated in it still carry heavy emotions regarding the war. They were not emotionlessly reenacting the actions of their ancestors; they were marching for the very same reason. This continuation of the marches of Decoration Day, in my opinion, exemplifies the enthusiasm of this generation in regards to the Civil War. The fact that the lives of ALL the soldiers who fought in the war are being commemorated in a celebratory way speaks volumes of where we are as a society. Reverend Lawrence Davies’ comment regarding the march truly shows that the citizens of Fredericksburg are intent on completing the process of reconciliation to live in an era where both sides can remember the Civil War as a building block to a utopian society.

    I take this as a positive step for our country. If northerners, southerners, whites or blacks can march in the same direction for a war in which the two sides had different fundamental beliefs, then we as a society are moving in the right direction. It shows that people can forget what “side” the soldiers were on and acknowledge that everyone was fighting for a cause. The recent march of Fredericksburg has shown me that the notion of complete reconciliation is not so far off, and that remembering a tragedy is more important than choosing petty sides.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 22, 2012

      Hi Nathan,

      You make a very good case for the event as a commemoration as opposed to a reenactment. You said:

      I take this as a positive step for our country. If northerners, southerners, whites or blacks can march in the same direction for a war in which the two sides had different fundamental beliefs, then we as a society are moving in the right direction

      I think it’s important to keep in mind that the distinction between Northerners and Southerners was never so easily defined. There were always white Southerners who remained loyal to the Union or remained on the sidelines during the war. At this point, 150 years after the Civil War, all of us would do well to take one step back and acknowledge that while we are still dealing with the long-term effects of the war we occupy a very different place. As I stated in another comment, we get into trouble when we view the war as participants in a morality play. The media loves stories that allow them to perpetuate what I call the “Continuing War Narrative” but the reality is far more complex.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 22, 2012

      Some good point here, Nathaniel. I don’t know if I agree that participants were “marching for the very same reason” given the amount of time that has lapsed. I do agree that the event takes on elements of a commemoration, but these people were not remembering the same event as those who did so in the immediate wake of the war. That is not meant to imply that there intentions were vacuous, but that the content of their remembrance is very different and shaped by factors present in our modern society. That said, it is always meaningful when we remember those Americans who gave their lives to help to preserve the Union. You said:

      The fact that the lives of ALL the soldiers who fought in the war are being commemorated in a celebratory way speaks volumes of where we are as a society.

      I couldn’t agree more and that is really the crux of the matter for me. For a long time this aspect of the war had been pushed into the background, in large part, owing to the tight hold on local government exercised by whites. There was simply very little opportunity for African Americans to commemorate the war in such a visible way. Think of the dangers of doing so. This event in Fredericksburg reflects a post-Civil Rights America and the connection between history and politics.

      • Nathaniel Coffey Oct 31, 2012

        Hi Kevin,

        Thank you for not only your response, but for skyping with the class today. It was very enjoyable and informative.

        I completely agree with your statement that viewing the war as a morality play can get us into trouble. It leads to choosing petty sides, and I believe this is the exact opposite of what the march in Fredericksburg was all about.

        As for the people of Fredericksburg marching for the “same reason” as their ancestors, I feel I slightly misspoke. I believe that the citizens of Fredericksburg were marching with the same enthusiasm as their ancestors, not so much the exact same reason. As you said, the times have changed, and therefore the circumstances of the march are very different.

        You said something very interesting in the end of your response regarding the connection between history and politics. I find that history (the Civil War, specifically) has helped shape some aspects of modern politics. For instance, the commemoration march in Fredericksburg showed the true beliefs of its residents. Their belief that reconciliation is crucial to a perfect society is absolutely correct. The occurrence of the Civil War has shaped the way people in modern times think. This effort to create a better society has been influenced by what happened in the past, and I find it very interesting how something that took place 150 years ago can have such a large impact on society today.

  • Kana Miller Oct 22, 2012

    Hi Mr. Levin,

    You asked whether the Fredericksburg Memorial Day event was “a reenactment or continuation of the original marches. It makes a difference. A reenactment leaves sufficient room to distance oneself from having to embrace the agenda of the ceremony while a continuation implies its embrace.” In regards to your post and the article written by Clint Schemmer, I think this question highlights two different ways of remembering the Civil War. These two forms of memorializing the war, as you’ve noted, serve different purposes. Both have a connection to the past, but commemoration also requires remembering the present.

    After reading both Schemmer’s article and your subsequent response, I wanted to address your question. Regardless of the organizers’ intentions, did the Fredericksburg Memorial Day ceremony become a commemoration or reenactment? I phrased the question this way because I think the organizers’ intentions may not have fully become the reality. Schemmer’s description of the event clearly states that the intention was not reenactment. The organizers and participators wanted to “note how African-Americans were the first people to regularly place flowers on the graves of U.S. soldiers buried in the National Cemetery.” Working with the National Park Service, the goal was to raise awareness of Civil War history, particularly African-American involvement in the war, in Fredericksburg. The ceremony planed on being the first of a new yearly tradition to help people remember the war while looking at the current political and social status of their city.

    While the ceremony may have been organized under this mentality, it’s hard to say if all the participants had the same attitude. I think the ceremony Schemmer describes sounds like a commemorative event in theory, but the willingness to take memories of the Civil War and compare them to the War’s effect today can be difficult. The focus on the racial politics in Fredericksburg is a great example. There was a group of people attending the march, both participants and bystanders, who saw the ceremony as a great step towards mending the racial tensions in Fredericksburg. You quoted Mimi Dempsey’s hopes of this easing community tension, “I realized that it’s not over… So I am excited to be part of healing this historical pain, I guess I’d say”. However you don’t seem to agree that one small ceremony could erase a city’s history. When the first African-Americans began placing flowers on grave stones, I would also agree, their intention probably wasn’t racial reconciliation. They simply wanted to honor those who had fought for the union.

    The struggle for racial reconciliation post-Civil War is complicated. David Blight mentions this tension in “Decoration Days; The Origins of Memorial Day in North and South”, and supports the idea that it’s hard to find neutral territory for race relations because some can’t move past the racial battle associated with the War. He supports this reasoning by saying, “those who remembered the war as the rebirth of the republic in the name of racial equality would continue to do battle with the South’s struggle to sustain white supremacy”. Although the tension Blight describes clearly exists in Fredericksburg, I think it is important to be grateful for the small steps taken towards reconciliation. This one ceremony in Fredericksburg might not have a huge impact on the city or the state, but at least they’re trying. We’d be much more worse off if commemorative ceremonies were only honoring Confederate soldiers, and there was no discussion around racial reconciliation.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 28, 2012

      Hi Kana,

      I completely agree that events like this are welcome, but I am not sure what reconciliation looks like at this point. Who are the parties being reconciled 150 years later? How communities remember the past reflects a certain set of values as well as inclusiveness. In that sense, the F-burg event does indeed reflect real progress.

  • Emily Werner Oct 22, 2012

    The physical battles of the Civil War officially ended nearly 150 years ago, but the battles over how to remember the war in American society are still being fought to this day. In his essay “Memorial Day: The Origins of Memorial Day in the North and South,” David Blight talks about how Decoration Day, an event initiated by black South Carolinians and white northern abolitionists to commemorate the contributions of Union soldiers, eventually evolved into a reconciliationist event to recognize the efforts both Northern and Southern soldiers. The event earlier this year in Fredericksburg aimed to resurrect and honor the original intentions of Decoration Day. Understanding the controversy that arose from the appearance of several Confederate flaggers at the ceremony is crucial in understanding the role that the Civil War still plays in American memory.

    There is an important difference, as Mr. Levin points out, between reenactments and acts of commemoration. Reenactment implies that the people are simply remembering how a certain group of people felt at a certain time in the past. They recognize their temporal distance from the situation in question. However, a commemoration implies that the people may actually feel the same way as people did in the past. When people commemorate the war, they must do so in way that puts the war in perspective, rather than re-engaging wartime thoughts. Basing my knowledge of reenactment on Tony Horwitz’s book Confederates in the Attic, I don’t believe that most of the people celebrating in Fredericksburg would fall into the category of reenactors. They were simply coming together to pay tribute to one of the first ways that Americans memorialized the war.

    I can certainly see why people would be angry by the presence of the flaggers, but isn’t segregating commemoration efforts simply a continuation of the divisive feelings that caused the war in the first place? It is important to remember all the different point of views that were around during the Civil War so as not to come away with a neutralized portrayal of the war. Revisionist history doesn’t make sense; it is not possible to reconcile the memory of the Civil War into a single, idealized perspective.

    I think the appearance and reception of the flaggers is a telling part of the story. I agree with Mr. Levin when he says “our own commemorative choices are never simply about the past. They are often reflections of our current political, cultural, and social concerns.” If they had purely wanted to celebrate their confederate forefathers, the flaggers would have had a separate ceremony at a different time. By showing up with the Decoration Day celebrations, they once again brought the different points of view and issues of race to the front of the event. I wonder whether their intention was to stir up controversy, or to innocently exercise their right to celebrate another point of view. The controversy over their appearance indicates that Americans still have a ways to go before they are able to move past the war, though I am not sure that that will ever be completely possible. I believe that Blight is correct in saying that “the struggle to own the meaning of Memorial Day in particular, and of Civil War memory in general, had only begun.”

    • Kevin Levin Oct 30, 2012

      I don’t think anyone is an advocate of barring certain people from taking part in such an event. Quite the opposite. However, what do you do when certain people arrive with the intent to distract? The problem for the Flaggers is that events like this force them to confront the issue of race and slavery which is something that is typically pushed to the side.

  • Meghan Oct 22, 2012

    Judging from the comments of those who attended, this event seems, without a doubt, to be a commemoration rather than a reenactment. The march was not an attempt to relive or experience the journey of these remembered soldiers but rather a simple gesture in honor of the fallen. Although difference between the two can be infinitesimal depending on the setting, I believe the scenario changes with the intention. The original objective of the event was to “broaden the area’s Civil War story to note blacks’ important service in the Union army,“ not to recreate the original march itself for the sole purpose of reenacting. Because it was a memorial rather than a reenactment, I don’t think it was acceptable for the Virginia Flaggers to change who was being remembered.
    When a family is remembering a loved one lost in a car accident, is it acceptable for the family of the deceased passenger to stand in the back with their own candlelight vigil? They may not “say or yell anything”* and be “overall respectful,”* but does that really matter? This group knew they were not invited, but chose to come anyway. I understand they were pushing to “advance the colors of their ancestors on Memorial Day,” but I ultimately find their actions selfish. No one should push agendas when commemorating the dead, no matter how relevant they believe the topic is.
    Although you noted that you intentionally left out much information on the flaggers, I’m sure it was still the hot topic of the day. It angered one woman enough to become infuriated by the demonstration and inspired numerous comments on this page. Does that not draw away from the entire point of the event? Rather than finding a way to honor all the parties involved, the Virginia Flaggers might have ensured no one but themselves were remembered. If they had gone to genuinely pay their respects, I feel as if their presentation would have looked immensely different.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 30, 2012

      I don’t know if anyone needed a formal invitation. The important point, as you suggest, is that they arrived to cause a distraction. Again, these are people who have no interest in confronting some of the tough question surrounding race and slavery in the Civil War. In fact, their preferred narrative ignores it entirely or offers a perspective that few people today would recognize as having any historical validity.

  • Rebecca Morofsky Oct 22, 2012

    Mr. Levin,
    I think you do a great job asserting how malleable and transient historical memory can be. As this blog post states, it was African Americans who first celebrated Decoration Day, to, “commemorate the bravery of the Union States soldiers and the cause for which they fought”. What’s interesting to note is that there is still a lot of contention concerning what exactly the Civil War was fought for. I believe a popular sentiment in the South is that the Confederacy did not fight the war to protect the institution of slavery, but rather to preserve states rights and antebellum Southern culture. On the other hand, I was always taught that President Lincoln fought the war to abolish slavery. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that both these recollections of the war do more than state the facts. They prove that historical memory is inherently political.
    The idea that historical narrative is filled with personal politics contests our common understanding of history’s objectivity. If history is objective, how can memory of the Civil War change so radically from one region to the other? The answer to this question is in the nature of the war, which was fought between states. Additionally, time can alter our attitudes about the war. In the late 1860s, many Union supporters, “refused to pay equal honor to the ‘rebel dead'” who defended the, “pernicious influence of human slavery” (pg. 103, Decoration Days: The Origins of Memorial Day in North and South, David Blight). For union apologists, the Civil War represented a moral assault on slavery. They believed the confederacy was the defender of this evil institution, and should be ostracized.
    But was it really about slavery, or was it about, “waving the bloody shirt”? For African Americans, union victory undoubtedly symbolized liberation. Yet for some other Union members, the emancipationist meaning of the war represented a moral superiority over the South.
    For the South, memory of the Civil War could never be separated from civic life. The postbellum era of the South made the Civil War an intrinsic part of politics. Southern politicians discoursed on Confederate opposition to the politics of the tyrannical North to increase Southern morale. Eventually, African Americans emerged into this narrative as happy and subservient slaves. The postbellum South used this narrative as both a Confederate apology for slavery and as a demonization of the Union.
    How then, did Decoration Day transition to Memorial Day? Decoration Day was an African American holiday, which celebrated liberation of slavery and honored those who fought on behalf of liberation. This recollection of the war condemned the South. If this country was ever to become a true union, history would need to detail an account of the war that, “helped the South assimilate the fact of defeat without repudiating the defeated” (pg.104, Decoration Days: The Origins of Memorial Day in North and South, David Blight). In other words, memory of the Civil War would need to change from the moral tirade on slavery to the “disagreement between brothers”. The African American narrative was sacrificed to save the tumultuous bond between the North and the South.
    It is for this reason that I believe Decoration Day needs to predominantly highlight the African American narrative. Memorial Day addresses both the Union and Confederate experience, and in doing so marginalizes how devastating slavery was. I worry that the racial tensions in this country will skyrocket if the historical narrative treats slavery as if it wasn’t both a moral crime and the main cause of the war. We cannot legislate racial equality, we can only teach through history that it is something we must strive for.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 30, 2012

      First, I am pleased to see that you now see a little mythology at work on both sides.

      Decoration Day was never solely an African-American holiday. Both white northerners and southerners soon commemorated the dead. That memory of slavery was sacrifice in order to bring about reunion is certainly Blight’s view, but there are a number of historians today who have challenged that view.

      Memorial Day today does commemorate black veterans – it just does so alongside everyone else without being explicit. Perhaps we should see this as progress rather than maintaining a narrative that is explicit about race.

      • Rebecca Morofsky Oct 30, 2012

        But should we see it as progress? I agree that Memorial Day should commemorate all veterans, but are we losing something significant by subduing the Black narrative? When talking about the Civil War, I think it is imperative to be explicit about race. I don’t think society should be comfortable with acknowleding slavery/race on an equal plane with other Civil War issues. Clearly the Civil War was devastating for all those involved. I genuinely believe that many Confederate soldiers thought they were fighting to preserve states rights and Southern culture. Yet such an intrinsic part of both of these ideals was an apology for slavery. Memorial Day downplays how pivotal an issue slavery was, and in doing so implies that race issues are to be treated with equal severity as other issues. Not that anyone is saying anything otherwise, but racism is still one of the most powerful plights in our country today. I think we need to have outlets where we solely commemorate the Black narrative because of the importance it places on racial issues today.
        This brings me to question whether or not there can ever be a master narrative. Can we ever document history objectively? Or are we bound to exclude/marginalize a specific group of people? I think historians like Howard Zinn are essential, because they challenge the assumptions we are taught in school about history. I hope one day that people like Zinn will be considered something other than alternative.

        • Kevin Levin Oct 30, 2012

          Hi Rebecca,

          Thanks for the follow-up. I agree that we should deal honestly with issues of race and slavery in reference to the Civil War and in the past few decades we have done just that. You can see this at museums and other historical institutions around the country, especially in the South. I for one would not want our modern Memorial Day commemorations to be carried out as a morality play about race. The men and women who have sacrificed their lives do so as Americans first. Our military is now fully integrated and African Americans have risen to the top ranks in all branches of service. This is not to say that we should not commemorate the sacrifice of black soldiers in the United States army during the Civil War. We still need to work on more fully integrating these stories into our collective memory of the war.

          I am not a fan of Howard Zinn. His commitment to advocacy often came at the expense of doing good history. Nowhere is this clearer than the chapter on the Civil War in his People’s History.

  • Joanna Mendelsohn Oct 22, 2012

    Throughout the comments on this blog people have been discussing the motives and consequences of the Virginia Flaggers’ participation in the Fredericksburg Decoration Day march. There was some debate as to whether or not the Flaggers presence was appropriate given that the modern opinion of the Confederate soldiers is that they fought to continue slavery. Some appeared to believe that the Flaggers’ involvement was inappropriate, while others found their actions to be completely justified. I would argue that the Flaggers’ involvement was harmless given that the controversy is based on a contemporary memory of the war that does not align with the historical reasons for the war.

    The Civil War is currently remembered as a war fought to end slavery, but I would argue that this is an inaccurate memory. Many high school American history classes focus on President Lincoln as the great emancipator, teaching that he led a war to abolish slavery. However, what many people don’t realize is that Lincoln never intended to end slavery. He didn’t want to see slavery spread into the west, but as of July 4, 1861 Lincoln had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the States where it exists” (McPherson 312). As states started to secede Lincoln wanted to put the country back together by whatever means necessary. In other words, slavery would remain intact as long as the country reunited. Additionally, had the war been about slavery borders states with slaves such as Kentucky and Missouri would have seceded with the rest of the south. Instead they remained in the Union. When Lincoln did announce his emancipation proclamation, he only granted emancipation to slaves in rebel states, allowing slavery to continue within the Border States in the Union.

    Because the historical memory of the Civil War has morphed over generations, many people view symbols of the Confederacy in a very negative light. For many people the Confederate flag is a strong symbol of racism. Now, as many people see the end of slavery as the most important outcome of the war, understandably the flag can be interpreted as a symbol of racism. For many African Americans the Confederate Flag is seen as very offensive, and in many cases it’s intended to be that way. Racists use the Confederate flag as a symbol because they too buy into the notion that the Civil War was fought solely to free slaves. However, during the war the Confederate flag was a symbol of secession, a symbol of a new nation. Given the Flaggers’ respectful behavior during the march I can only conclude that they were there to honor the Confederate dead and not march in support of racism.

    Despite the controversy it appears to me that the Flaggers’ intentions in participating in the march were similar to those of the other marchers. As the historical Decoration Day ceremonies were collective public performances in which “blacks…proclaimed their freedom and converted destruction into new life” it makes sense that some would want to see this current march unimpeded by the Flaggers (Blight 96). Some may say that the participation of the Flaggers was offensive due to the current symbolism of the Confederate flag. Nevertheless I would argue that if you combine the historical viewpoint of the war to the actions of the Virginia Flaggers, that in this case, you find that the Flaggers and Decoration Day marchers had similar goals in mind. It would appear that they are both simply paying a tribute to the soldiers that fought and died in the war.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 23, 2012

      Joanna,

      You are absolutely right that the war was not fought initially to end slavery. The gradual erosion of slavery took place in response to the war itself. Lincoln remained focused on the preservation of the Union from beginning to end, but he always believed that slavery was evil and wished for its eventual end.

      More importantly, many Northerners believed that slavery ought to be abolished, but worried about the consequences of doing so. Where would blacks move? Would they compete for jobs, engage in interracial marriage, etc.?

      Many people view the Confederate flag “in a negative light” because it functioned as one of the symbols of the military arm of a government whose stated purposed was the defense of slavery and white supremacy. I would also point you to the 1950s and 60s when the flag became a popular symbol of “Massive Resistance” against the civil rights movement. It was no accident that the Confederate flag was used at this time. I highly recommend John Coski’s book, The Confederate Battle Flag (Harvard University Press).

  • Marco Baratta Oct 22, 2012

    Hi Kevin,
    The question that is posed of whether this was a commemoration or continuation does not seem to me be the most important. I imagine that for some it was a continuation, and for others, a reenactment. As Ryan Quint posted, “There were some dressed up in 19th-Century Civilian clothes, and others, like myself, in shorts and a t-shirt.”
    Either way, those marching were there for the same reason, to commemorate those who fought and died in the war the same way that they were commemorated since the first decoration days. Whether or not it was a reenactment, the sentiments and respect paid toward those who fought is the same. When decoration days were first started in the late 1860s and early 1870s, they took different forms for different groups of people. There were numerous groups and days that this “holiday” was celebrated on and each group remembered differently, but the bottom line is that they all remembered. That is why I believe it doesn’t matter that much whether it was a reenactment or continuation. The important and meaningful thing is that by taking part in this march, these men and women honored and remembered those who fought and died for their cause (and in this case freedom).
    In the case of the confederate flaggers attending the event, I have mixed feelings. This was a march to honor Northern soldiers, and even if it is true that they were respectful throughout, the fact that people bearing the flag would even show up seems somewhat disrespectful in itself. On the other hand, in the beginning, this “decoration day” (which evolved into memorial day) was celebrated by every group. North, south, black, and white all remembered, even if they did it in different ways and on different days. Isn’t that why the official holiday of Memorial Day was created; so all sides and people could honor on the same day? Then again, the different sides originally did honor separately, so maybe the flaggers should have let it be. In some ways it seems disrespectful, but in others, it only seems appropriate that both sides would attend.
    Regardless of what one believes about the above controversies, it is undisputed that the march was a great way to honor the fallen soldiers and revive a long lost “civic ceremony”.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 22, 2012

      Hi Marco,

      The Flaggers have made it a point to intervene when they think news coverage is forthcoming. They are opportunists with very little to say beyond their concern about the display of the Confederate flag.

      • Marco Baratta Oct 23, 2012

        Mr. Levin, Thank you for responding to me,
        That actually is just the reason I think they were being disrespectful. They show up solely to show the flag and almost demand attention like an annoying younger brother. If it’s true that they show up with little to say beyond showing the flag, then they’re sole purpose is to attempt to ruin an event like this.

  • Bryn Hsu Oct 22, 2012

    After the Civil War, as one nation the United States could not refuse to acknowledge those Confederate soldiers of her same country fought valiantly and suffered bloody losses, especially as the South was left in chaos and ruins, literally. Yet at the same time it is fully understandable that the African-Americans who were emancipated needed to remember the significance of the war and what it meant to them.
    Your question of can Memorial Day marches in Fredericksburg nowadays be considered re-enactments or as a continuation of the original marches is interesting. I believe that while it is not completely either, it is certainly much more a continuation of the original marches, which I agree were a “living reminder that the war had profound results for millions of slaves”. However, I feel that those who honour the Confederate soldiers, even the “flaggers”, are not necessarily stating a support for racial segregation. As you have mentioned in a comment, they were polite, respectful and caused no trouble. I believe that it is an innocuous act, acknowledging the sacrificed Confederates.
    I was very intrigued by your point that “racial reconciliation” was “not high on the agenda” for the earliest African-American marchers on Decoration Day. I definitely agree. However, I think that we must remember that the war had not originally been initiated for the purpose of emancipation—in fact, Abraham Lincoln himself admitted to feeling that he had been forced to be the Great Emancipator during the war, to advance Northern strength. Had the war been won quickly and within a few battles like the North originally believed it would, slavery would have continued to be tolerated for the sake of peace and reunion of the nation. My point is, the fact that the war had not been originally started for the sake of freeing the slaves is a fact often forgotten or not even known, and had the Confederates not continued to fight for their cause despite losing battles, the state of slavery after the Civil War would have been drastically different. While this may be a minority view, I feel that the honouring of the Confederate soldiers as well as Union soldiers can have a legitimate historical reason and should be taken into account. This is certainly a controversial point of view, but despite the intent of the Confederate Cause, the consequences of their actions did truly lead to a greater nation for the African-Americans of South.
    However, I also have to understand why people like the woman mentioned above would be so offended by the presence of “flaggers”. Racial equality is something we nowadays are taught as expected. Yet the Civil War reminds us that it was not always this way, and the presence of those who seem to not be in full support of the Union, whose victory changed American history as well as future, can be difficult to tolerate.
    These marches, I believe, are not re-enactments in its proper definition, as Tony Horowitz has helped shaped my view of re-enactors of the Civil War after reading his book “Confederates In the Attic”. Re-enactors are people who strive to bring out the true essence of what the history had truly been like, and it cannot be avoided during Memorial Day the glossing over of sensitive issues, as we can see from the fact that those dressed as Rebels had not even been invited to the event, as though the fact that Rebels had died at the war was a fact not to be touched.
    David Blight says that “The evolution of Memorial Day during its first twenty years or so became a contest between three divergent, and sometimes overlapping, groups: blacks and their white former abolitionist allies, white Northerners, and white Southerners.” This agrees with your point that the earliest black marchers would be “wondering whether their newly won freedom would last or how expansive their rights as citizen would be.” So we can agree that originally the marches did certainly contain racial issues. However, nowadays, after a century and a half, this day may be treated as, as you say, “healing ground for racial divisions”. Both of these different views still encourage a remembrance of one of what David Blight describes as “the war’s two great results—black freedom…” This is why I do feel that it is a continuation of the original marches, as the goal has remained the same—racial reconciliation.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 23, 2012

      Thanks for the comment. Let me respond to a couple of points here. You said:

      However, I feel that those who honour the Confederate soldiers, even the “flaggers”, are not necessarily stating a support for racial segregation. As you have mentioned in a comment, they were polite, respectful and caused no trouble. I believe that it is an innocuous act, acknowledging the sacrificed Confederates.

      I agree that the overwhelming majority of people who commemorate Confederate are not calling for a return to segregation. My question, however, is can you commemorate the Confederate soldier w/o acknowledging the cause for which he fought? We know that very few soldiers owned slaves, but all white Southerners understood the importance of maintaining the institution and even benefited from it in different ways.

      You are right that the United States did not go to war to end slavery. It was the war itself that led to the end of slavery and the recruitment of roughly 180,000 black men into the United States army. Most white Northerners would have viewed ending slavery as a means to save the Union. My concern is not with the commemoration of Confederate soldiers 150 years later, but with the importance of understanding how our choices of what to commemorate reflects what we are still willing to face head on about our nation and its history.

  • Evan Shalat Oct 23, 2012

    While you point out that Union authorities would not have approved Confederate veterans honoring their dead in the past, this is not true today, or at least not universally true for everyone from the North and South, as it would have been in the late 1860s and 70s. That being said, I agree that Civil War memorialization is highly contentious. Thank you for your book recommendations! I will certainly check into those; based off of their descriptions, the latter sounds especially intriguing.
    You mention the fact that you would not be impressed with the opinions of the re-enactors that Horowitz mentions in his book. My question to you is, why are you so quick to disregard them? Having read sections of Horowitz’s book, his re-enactor “friends” seem to be quite knowledgeable, especially Robert Lee Hodge, who appears to know every fact their exists to know about being a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. I, too, see this Fredericksburg event as an attempt to remind the community of the memory of the war, however, I still do not think that this necessarily means that it is a re-enactment. If you believe this event is a re-enactment, what recent event would you consider merely a commemoration, and not a re-enactment?
    Thank you for your response!

    • Kevin Levin Oct 23, 2012

      Hi Evan,

      Thanks for the follow-up. I agree with your first point. As I’ve said in response to other comments, we certainly occupy a very different place in comparison to the generation that lived through the Civil War. How we commemorate and remember the Civil War dead is very different and much more complex given our distance from the event as well as changing demographics.

      I don’t disregard Horowitz’s re-enactors. My point is that the majority of re-enactors probably don’t go to such extremes. In other words, I am not sure who they speak for. No doubt, many of them are very knowledgeable and passionate about the past.

  • Billy Bearden Dec 8, 2012

    Chatham House, Fredericksburg, VA 12-8-12

    The Fredericksburg Divsion, Va Flaggers had a great day today at the Sesquicentennial events there. Much more coming, but this photo is an important one and I wanted to share right away.

    On Memorial Day, the Flaggers attended a Remembrance Walk, sponsored by the National Park Service. We believe strongly that any Civil War Remembrance Walk, in Fredericksburg, VA, should have a representation to remember the Confederates who died there.

    We were welcomed by the US Colored Troops and Union Re-Enactors who led the procession, and joined the walk without incident and with much support from onlookers and participants.

    http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150996123814274.480466.698334273&type=3

    Almost immediately, however, several Anti-Confederate “Historians”/Bloggers attacked our efforts and insisted that we were neither invited, nor welcomed, and were there just to “cause a scene”. We were even accused of “crashing” the event. Sadly, even some in our own Heritage Organizations joined their hate-filled chorus.

    View their comments here… http://cwmemory.com/2012/05/29/almost-moved-to-tears-in-fredericksburg-virginia/

    This afternoon, we had the opportunity to talk with one of the organizers and participants of the remembrance walk, a member of the US Colored Troops, and a highly respected historical interpreter for the National Park Service…the gentleman pictured here. I asked him point blank about the Remembrance Walk and how our presence was received. He not only told me that we were welcomed on that day and given the same respect we offered, but invited us to return next year. He told us that several Virginia re-enactment units had also been invited. Although we certainly knew that this was the case from our experience that day, it was great to have the opportunity to hear it face to face, from someone who was also there that day, and to offer reinforcement of the truth that, if they had any honor, would bring an apology from those who slandered the Flaggers and our efforts.

    We won’t hold our breath on that one…but we WILL continue our efforts to make sure our ancestors receive the recognition and honor they rightfully deserve!

  • Abdul-Mu'eid Mar 4, 2013

    “I realized that it’s not over. We’re working through this,” Dempsey said upon reaching the Willis Hill end of Marye’s Heights. “So I am excited to be part of healing of this historical pain, I guess I’d say.”

    It really takes a long time to subjugate the spirit of independence in a people doesn’t it? Who would have thought that over 150 years after the war you would still have to squelch the Southern Americans right to self-determination. It only took how long to squelch the Palestinians right? Oh wait….

    The seed has been planted. The spirit of independence will never go away. هَذَا مِن فَضْلِ رَبِّي

    • naomi Mar 5, 2013

      I feel you.

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