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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

November 12, 2014: Veterans Days: The Harrisburg Veterans Parade

[In honor of Veteran’s Day, a series on cultural and historical moments and issues related to that sizeable and growing American community. I’d love to hear your Veteran’s Day thoughts, connections, and perspectives for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On one of the terrible, and then one of the great, American moments.

As part of last year’s Veteran’s Week series, I wrote about the frustrating contradiction embodied by African American World War I soldiers—the way in which their impressive collective service gave way to continued discrimination and mistreatment once they were back stateside. Those responses were made possible, or at least greatly enabled, by the nation’s ability to forget the soldiers’ service, to write this hugely inspiring history right out of our communal memories (despite the best efforts of writers and leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois). And it’s important to note that such post-war communal forgetting and elision had happened before, and in an even more overtly ironic way: the forgetting and elision of the histories and stories of the more than 180,000 African Americans who served as US Colored Troops during the Civil War.

Given all the challenges faced by those African American Civil War soldiers, given Abraham Lincoln’s clear crediting of them with helping turn the tide of the war, and given the freakin’ overarching cause of the war itself, our immediate and absolute forgetting and elision of this community of veterans was and remains a national disgrace and shame. And while those processes unfolded over many years, they also can be localized in one specific and very telling moment: the May 23-24, 1865 Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, DC, in which over two hundred thousand Union veterans marched from the Capitol to the White House—and for which not a single USCT soldier was invited or allowed to participate. It’s impossible to know whether Abraham Lincoln, had he lived, would have permitted the Grand Review to develop in that way; but it’s certainly fair to link the moment and exclusion directly to the immediate post-war changes in Reconstruction plans and goals enacted by the Andrew Johnson administration and much of the rest of the federal government.
If the Grand Review was thus a low moment in American history, it also led, six months later, to one of our high points: Harrisburg’s Grand Review of Black Troops. On November 14, 1865, Harrisburg’s own Thomas Morris Chester—Civil War journalist, recruiter, and leader; son of an escaped slave who would go on to study law and become an educational leader and much more; one of America’s most inspiring figures by any measure—served as grand marshal for a parade of US Colored Troops, who marched through the city to the home of former secretary of war Simon Cameron (who reviewed and thanked the troops). Speeches by Octavius Catto, William Howard Day, and other luminaries helped frame the moment’s true historical, social, and national significance. And significant it was and remains: while it’s vital to remember, and rage against, the way in which the African American soldiers and veterans were forgotten and elided in our collective memories, then and (to at least too great of an extent) now, it’s just as important to remember the kinds of inspiring alternative histories and communities represented by great moments like Harrisburg’s Grand Review.
Next veterans post tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Other veterans texts, moments, or issues you’d share?


  1. My father and his father both enlisted in the United States military forces. My grandfather served in the theater of Pacific and never saw a day of action. My father signed up to serve in Vietnam and was deployed to Germany for three years, finishing his tour in Kansas. But the veteran I want to write of is my maternal mother, Imelda Fitzgerald (Smith after marriage). She and her community of only 400 families had been moved from their homes in Placentia Bay to an area closer to St. John's Bay to make room for the American Naval Base. My grandmother then went and enlisted as one of the ladies of the call center. She was not an American, and she wasn't even a Canadian at the time (it was technically the Dominion of Newfoundland... no seriously that was the name of it, look it up!). She, and the other young women, learned code, technical mechanics of the phone system, assisted in landings as needed, and watched as some of the finest pilots America would see "puddle hopped" to Europe. What makes her extraordinary is that this woman lost her home, farm, livestock, fishing business and way of life to the lend-lease program, a program that she did not benefit from, nor even understand. But she signed up to work for "the states" these loud, pushy people who ate and spoke at the same time, yelled everything they said, and had no idea what "thank you" meant. She loved them. She would then move (uhm... illegally) to this land and make a home for herself, her husband and her 16 (anchor) babies. We owe a great deal to the people who stand on lines, and face an enemy, but we owe a debt to the people who stand behind them and fight in their own way.