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.