But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.
Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.
The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.
After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Forgetting Why We Remember
By David W. Blight
May 29, 2011
The important Lost Causes in history have all been at heart compelling stories about noble defeats that were, with time, forged into political movements of renewal: the French after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the profound need for national revanche; Germany after the Great War and its “stab in the back” theory that led over the 1920s to the rise of the nationalism and racism of the Nazis; and the white South after our Civil War. All Lost Causes find their lifeblood in lies, big and small, lies born of beliefs in search of a history that can be forged into a story and mobilize masses of people to act politically, violently, and in the name of ideology.
The story demands a religious loyalty. It must be protected, reinforced, practiced in ritual and infused with symbols. What is the Trumpian claim of a stolen election but an elaborate fiction that fights to make the reality and truth of the unbelievers irrelevant. Some myths are benign as cultural markers; but others are rooted in big lies so strong as engines of resentment that they can fill parade grounds and endless political rallies, or motivate the storming of the U.S. Capitol in a quixotic attempt to overthrow an election.
How Trumpism May Endure
The Confederacy built a lasting myth of victory out of defeat. Trump and his followers may, too.
David Blight, NYTIMES
Times were better now. Haynes sold her baskets for $30 each—more, she reckoned, than her father cleared in a year. I let her fool me out of $30 for one. As I got up to go, I asked how she felt about her neighbor selling rebel trinkets in an adjoining stall.
Haynes shrugged, gathering fronds in her lap for a fresh basket. “They can remember that war all they want,” she said. “So long’s they remember they lost.”
Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic
African-Americans invented Memorial Day, in Charleston, South Carolina. There are three or four cities in the United States, North and South, that claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day, but they all claim 1866; they were too late. I had the great, blind, good fortune to discover this story in a messy, totally disorganized collection of veterans’ papers at the Houghton Library at Harvard some years back. And what you have there is black Americans, recently freed from slavery, announcing to the world, with their flowers and their feet and their songs, what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a second American Revolution. That story got lost, it got lost for more than a century. And when I discovered it, I started calling people in Charleston that I knew in archives and libraries, including the Avery Institute, the black research center in Charleston — “Has anybody, have you ever heard of this story?” And no one had ever heard it. It showed the power of the Lost Cause in the wake of the war to erase a story. But I started looking for other sources, and lo and behold there were lots of sources. Harper’s Weekly even had a drawing of the cemetery in an 1867 issue. The old oval of that racetrack is still there today. If you ever go to Charleston go up to Hampton Park. Hampton Park is today what the racecourse was then. It’s named for Wade Hampton, the white supremacist, redeemer, and governor of South Carolina at the end of Reconstruction and a Confederate General during the Civil War. And that park sits immediately adjacent to the Citadel, the Military Academy of Charleston. On any given day you can see at any given time about 100 or 200 Citadel cadets jogging on the track of the old racecourse. There is no marker, there’s no memento, there’s only a little bit of a memory. Although a few years ago a friend of mine in Charleston organized a mock ceremony where we re-enacted that event, including the children’s choir, and they made me dress up in a top hat and a funny old nineteenth century suit and made me get up on a podium and make a stupid speech. But there is an effort, at least today, to declare Hampton Park a National Historic Landmark. See you Thursday.
The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
HIST 119 – Lecture 19 – To Appomattox and Beyond: The End of the War and a Search for Meanings
Two classes I enjoyed and recommend without reservation. (I selected the audio classes. I think you can pick video if you want.)
The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877, David Blight
(HIST 119) This course explores the causes, course, and consequences of the American Civil War, from the 1840s to 1877. The primary goal of the course is to understand the multiple meanings of a transforming event in American history. Those meanings may be defined in many ways: national, sectional, racial, constitutional, individual, social, intellectual, or moral. Four broad themes are closely examined: the crisis of union and disunion in an expanding republic; slavery, race, and emancipation as national problem, personal experience, and social process; the experience of modern, total war for individuals and society; and the political and social challenges of Reconstruction. This course was recorded in Spring 2008.
Introduction to Ancient Greek History, Donald Kagan
(CLCV 205) This is an introductory course in Greek history tracing the development of Greek civilization as manifested in political, intellectual, and creative achievements from the Bronze Age to the end of the classical period. Students read original sources in translation as well as the works of modern scholars. This course was recorded in Fall 2007.