Sunday, May 24, 2009

Need to Educate P & C Reporters Revealed

Sunday's article on what may have been the first memorial day dedicated to civil war soldiers [see The First Memorial Day] should pique the interest of all history-loving readers who realize that knowing the past is invaluable. Brian Hicks' article on the event taking place on May 1, 1865, in what is now Hampton Park may very well chronicle the first Memorial Day celebration ever, although most history books give that award to an event in New York one year later.

Hicks carefully documents that early Decoration Day while summarizing what happened after:

"A tradition began. Within 20 years, the name of this holiday would be changed to Memorial Day.

"In 1868, Confederate Memorial Day got its start. The two holidays were kept separate, allegedly because Southerners did not want to celebrate a holiday to honor Union soldiers. [allegedly?!] Blight [a Yale history professor] said the tradition of remembering soldiers and decorating their graves likely began during the war, when women visited battlefields after the fighting had ended.

"For the rest of the 19th century, Decoration Day and Confederate Memorial Day existed as separate holidays, perhaps a symbol of the country's lingering divide. The two holidays were combined and designated a federal holiday in the 20th century."

Someone needs to give Hicks (and presumably the editors of the "South's Oldest Daily Newspaper") a history lesson. You don't need to be an expert to know that in South Carolina, while both sides celebrate Memorial Day this weekend in remembrance of the valiant dead of all wars, the State still recognizes Confederate Memorial Day on May 10. Maybe Hicks doesn't read the papers.

More than that, in his history of the holiday's development, Hicks completely ignores another significant event in Charleston, memorialized by one of the most famous poems to originate from the Civil War, written for the June 1866 decorating of the graves of Confederate dead at Magnolia Cemetery on the Charleston Neck, not very far away from those graves at the race track. Henry Timrod's "Ode on the Confederate Dead" is still printed in high school American literature books, bowdlerized though they be. A line from Timrod's poem even graces the South Carolina monument at the Gettysburg battlefield: “There is no holier spot of ground than where defeated valor lies, by mourning beauty crowned.” The line refers to the laying of wreaths of flowers on the graves in Charleston, although it certainly applies to Gettysburg.

I'm also not sure what Hicks means by "Southern gentility was long gone" in May of 1865. Union troops were in control of the city, but not every Confederacy-supporting Charlestonian was dead or even removed from the city.

The article rightly provides a true example of the "richness" of Charleston's history, but let's tell all of the story.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The truth is always far better than fiction. I'm all for claiming Charleston as the site for the first Decoration Day which eventually became what we now know to be our national Memorial Day. How ironic that would be. We should keep in mind the US has a long history of racism not limited to the South. It was just as objectionable then (and possibly still) to the average New Yorker as it would have been to a defeated Confederate to acknowledge we were being led to a good idea by some recently freed slaves, let alone Negro school children.

Let's get all the facts straight and then embrace this great idea as belonging to all of us. We should be grateful that a group of children of former slaves in 1865 would appear to have had a better grasp of their history (our history) than most schools in America are providing our children today.

Post Script: The first Confederate Memorial Day may have also been organized not far from here, too, and it wasn't at Magnolia Cemetery. Rivers Bridge battle field and the graves of its defenders were also honored prior to any others on an annual basis. I believe they may have started a regular memorial as early as May 1865. The residents of the old Barnwell District still meet to honor the fallen every May 10 on the banks of the Great Salkehtchie Swamp. Known now as Rivers Bridge State Park, it is located a little north and west of Walterboro.

The public knowing the truth of history is necessary to keep tyrants and charlatans from making too much mischief.