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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

May 31, 2023: 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,


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