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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

May 31, 2017: Decoration Day Histories: Roger Pryor



[Following up Monday’s Memorial Day special, a series on some of the complex American histories connected to the holiday’s original identity as Decoration Day.]
On the invitation and speech that mark two shifts in American attitudes.
In May 1876, New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music invited Confederate veteran, lawyer, and Democratic politician Roger A. Pryor to deliver its annual Decoration Day address. As Pryor noted in his remarks, the invitation was most definitely an “overture of reconciliation,” one that I would pair with the choice (earlier that same month) of Confederate veteran and poet Sidney Lanier to write and deliver the opening Cantata at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Indeed, reunion and reconciliation were very much the themes of 1876, threads that culminated in the contested presidential election and the end of Federal Reconstruction that immediately followed it (and perhaps, although historians have different perspectives on this point, stemmed from that election’s controversial results). In any case, this was a year in which the overtures of reconciliation were consistently heard, and we could locate Pryor’s address among the rest.
Yet the remarks that Pryor delivered in his Decoration Day speech could not be accurately described as reconciliatory—unless we shift the meaning to “trying to reconcile his Northern audiences with his Confederate perspective on the war, its causes and effects, and both regions.” Pryor was still waiting, he argued, for “an impartial history” to be told, one that more accurately depicted both “the cause of secession” and Civil War and the subsequent, “dismal period” of Reconstruction. While he could not by any measure be categorized as impartial, he nonetheless attempted to offer his own version of those histories and issues throughout the speech—one designed explicitly, I would argue, to convert his Northern audience to that version of both past and present. Indeed, as I argue at length in my first book, narratives of reunion and reconciliation were quickly supplanted in this period by ones of conversion, attempts—much of the time, as Reconstruction lawyer and novelist Albion Tourgée noted in an 1888 article, very successful attempts at that—to convert the North and the nation as a whole to this pro-Southern standpoint.
In my book’s analysis I argued for a chronological shift: that reunion/reconciliation was a first national stage in this period, and conversion a second. But Pryor’s Decoration Day speech reflects how the two attitudes could go hand-in-hand: the Northern invitation to Pryor could reflect, as he noted, that attitude of reunion on the part of Northern leaders; and Pryor’s remarks and their effects (which we cannot know for certain in this individual case, but which were, as Tourgée noted, quite clear in the nation as a whole) could both comprise and contribute to the attitudes of conversion to the Southern perspective. And in any case, it’s important to add that both reconciliation and conversion differ dramatically from the original purpose of Decoration Day, as delineated so bluntly and powerfully by Frederick Douglass in his 1871 speech: remembrance, of the Northern soldiers who died in the war and of the cause for which they did so. By 1876, it seems clear, that purpose was shifting, toward a combination of amnesia and propaganda, of forgetting the war’s realities and remembering a propagandistic version of them created by voices like Pryor’s.
Next Decoration Day history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

May 30, 2017: Decoration Day Histories: Frederick Douglass



[Following up Monday’s Memorial Day special, a series on some of the complex American histories connected to the holiday’s original identity as Decoration Day.]
On one of the great American speeches, and why it’d be so important to add to our collective memories.
In a long-ago guest post on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic blog, Civil War historian Andy Hall highlighted Frederick Douglass’s amazing 1871 Decoration Day speech (full text available at that first hyperlink). Delivered at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, then as now the single largest resting place of U.S. soldiers, Douglass’s short but incredibly (if not surprisingly) eloquent and pointed speech has to be ranked as one of the most impressive in American history. I’m going to end this first paragraph here so you can read the speech in full (again, it’s at the first hyperlink above), and I’ll see you in a few.
Welcome back! If I were to close-read Douglass’s speech, I could find choices worth extended attention in every paragraph and every line. But I agree with Hall’s final point, that the start of Douglass’s concluding paragraph—“But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic”—is particularly noteworthy and striking. Granted, this was not yet the era that would come to be dominated by narratives of reunion and reconciliation between the regions, and then by ones of conversation to the Southern perspective (on all of which, see tomorrow’s post); an era in which Douglass’s ideas would be no less true, nor in which (I believe) he would have hesitated to share them, but in which a Decoration Day organizing committee might well have chosen not to invite a speaker who would articulate such a clear and convincing take on the causes and meanings of the Civil War. Yet even in 1871, to put that position so bluntly and powerfully at such an occasion would have been impressive for even a white speaker, much less an African American one.
If we were to better remember Douglass’s Decoration Day speech, that would be one overt and important effect: to push back on so many of the narratives of the Civil War that have developed in the subsequent century and a half. One of the most frequent such narratives is that there was bravery and sacrifice on both sides, as if to produce a leveling effect on our perspective on the war—but as Douglass notes in the paragraph before that conclusion, recognizing individual bravery in combat is not at all the same as remembering a war: “The essence and significance of our devotions here today are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle.” I believe Douglass here can be connected to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and its own concluding notion of honoring the dead through completing “the unfinished work”: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.” That work and task remained unfinished and great long after the Civil War’s end, after all—and indeed remain so to this day in many ways. Just another reason to better remember Frederick Douglass’s Decoration Day speech.
Next Decoration Day history tomorrow,
BenI
PS. What do you think?

Monday, May 29, 2017

May 29, 2017: Better Remembering Memorial Day



[This special post is the first of a series inspired by the history behind Memorial Day. Check out my similar 2012 and 2014 series for more!]

On what we don’t remember about Memorial Day, and why we should.

In a long-ago post on the Statue of Liberty, I made a case for remembering, and engaging much more fully, with what the Statue was originally intended, by its French abolitionist creator, to symbolize: the legacy of slavery and abolitionism in both America and France, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the memories of what he had done to advance that cause, and so on. I tried there, hopefully with some success, to leave ample room for what the Statue has come to mean, both for America as a whole and, more significantly still, for generation upon generation of immigrant arrivals to the nation. I think those meanings, especially when tied to Emma Lazarus’ poem and its radically democratic and inclusive vision of our national identity, are beautiful and important in their own right. But how much more profound and meaningful, if certainly more complicated, would they be if they were linked to our nation’s own troubled but also inspiring histories of slavery and abolitionism, of sectional strife and Civil War, of racial divisions and those who have worked for centuries to transcend and bridge them?

I would say almost exactly the same thing when it comes to the history of Memorial Day. For the last century or so, at least since the end of World War I, the holiday has meant something broadly national and communal, an opportunity to remember and celebrate those Americans who have given their lives as members of our armed forces. While I certainly feel that some of the narratives associated with that idea are as simplifying and mythologizing and meaningless as many others I’ve analyzed here—“they died for our freedom” chief among them; the world would be a vastly different, and almost certainly less free, place had the Axis powers won World War II (for example), but I have yet to hear any convincing case that the world would be even the slightest bit worse off were it not for the quarter of a million American troops who lives were wasted in the Vietnam War (for another)—those narratives are much more about politics and propaganda, and don’t change at all the absolutely real and tragic and profound meaning of service and loss for those who have done so and all those who know and love them. One of the most pitch-perfect statements of my position on such losses can be found in a song by (surprisingly) Bruce Springsteen; his “Gypsy Biker,” from Magic (2007), certainly includes a strident critique of the Bush Administration and Iraq War, as seen in lines like “To those who threw you away / You ain’t nothing but gone,” but mostly reflects a brother’s and family’s range of emotions and responses to the death of a young soldier in that war.

Yet as with the Statue, Memorial Day’s original meanings and narratives are significantly different from, and would add a great deal of complexity and power to, these contemporary images. The holiday was first known as Decoration Day, and was (at least per the thorough histories of it by scholars like David Blight) originated in 1865 by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina; the slaves visited a cemetery for Union soldiers on May 1st of that year and decorated their graves, a quiet but very sincere tribute to what those soldiers have given and what it had meant to the lives of these freedmen and –women. The holiday quickly spread to many other communities, and just as quickly came to focus more on the less potentially divisive, or at least less complex as reminders of slavery and division and the ongoing controversies of Reconstruction and so on, perspectives of former soldiers—first fellow Union ones, but by the 1870s veterans from both sides. Yet former slaves continued to honor the holiday in their own way, as evidenced by a powerful scene from Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Rodman the Keeper” (1880), in which the protagonist observes a group of ex-slaves leaving their decorations on the graves of the Union dead at the cemetery where he works. On the one hand, these ex-slave memorials are parallel to the family memories that now dominate Memorial Day, and serve as a beautiful reminder that the American family extends to blood relations of very different and perhaps even more genuine kinds. But on the other hand, the ex-slave memorials represent far more complex and in many ways (I believe) significant American stories and perspectives than a simple familial memory; these acts were a continuing acknowledgment both of some of our darkest moments and of the ways in which we had, at great but necessary cost, defeated them.
Again, I’m not trying to suggest that any current aspects or celebrations of Memorial Day are anything other than genuine and powerful; having heard some eloquent words about what my Granddad’s experiences with his fellow soldiers had meant to him (he even commandeered an abandoned bunker and hand-wrote a history of the Company after the war!), I share those perspectives. But as with the Statue and with so many of our national histories, what we’ve forgotten is just as genuine and powerful, and a lot more telling about who we’ve been and thus who and where we are. The more we can remember those histories too, the more complex and meaningful our holidays, our celebrations, our memories, and our futures will be.
Series continues tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?