Decoration Day at Arlington, 1871
As many readers will know, the practice of setting aside a specific day to honor fallen soldiers sprung up spontaneously across the country, North and South, in the years following the Civil War. One of the earliest — perhaps the earliest — of these events was the ceremony held on May 1, 1865 in newly-occupied Charleston, South Carolina, by that community’s African American population, honoring the Union prisoners buried at the site of the city’s old fairgrounds and racecourse, as described in David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.
Over the years, “Decoration Day” events gradually coalesced around late May, particularly after 1868, when General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, called for a day of remembrance on May 30 of that year. It was a date chosen specifically not to coincide with the anniversary of any major action of the war, to be an occasion in its own right. While Memorial Day is now observed nationwide, parallel observances throughout the South honor the Confederate dead, and still hold official or semi-official recognition by the former states of the Confederacy.
Recently while researching the life of a particular Union soldier, I came across a story from a black newspaper, the New Orleans Semi-Weekly Louisianan dated June 15, 1871. It describes an event that occurred at the then-newly-established Arlington National Cemetery. Like the U.S. Colored Troops who’d been denied a place in the grand victory parade in Washington in May 1865, the black veterans discovered that segregation and exclusion within the military continued even after death:
DECORATION DAY AND HYPOCRISY.
The custom of decorating the graves of soldiers who fell in the late war, seems to be doing more harm to the living than it does to honor the dead. In every Southern State there are not only separate localities where the respective defendants of Unionism and Secession lie buried, but there are different days of observance, a rivalry in the ostentatious parade for floral wealth and variety, and a competition in extravagant eulogy, more calculated to inflame the passions than to soften and purify the affections, which ought to be the result of all funeral rights.
Besides this bad effect among the whites there comes a still more evil influence from the dastardly discriminations made by the professedly union [sic.] people themselves.
Read this extract from the Washington Chronicle:
AT THE COLORED CEMETERY
While services were in progress at the tomb of the “Unknown” Comrade Charles Guthridge, John S. Brent, and Beverly Tucker, of Thomas R. Hawkins Post, No. 14 G.A.R., followed by Greene’s Brass Band, Colonel Perry Carson’s Pioneer Corps of the 17th District, Butler Zouaves, under the command of Charles B. Fisher, and a large number of colored persons proceeded to the cemetery on the colored soldiers to the north of the mansion, and on arriving there they found no stand erected, no orator or speaker selected, not a single flag placed on high, not even a paper flag at the head boards of these loyal but ignored dead, not even a drop of water to quench the thirst of the humble patriots after their toilsome march from the beautifully decorated grand stand above to this barren neglected spot below. At 2 ½ o’clock P.M., no flowers or other articles coming for decorative purposes, messengers were dispatched to the officers of the day for them; they in time returned with a half dozen (perhaps more) rosettes, and a basket of flower leaves. Deep was the indignation and disappointment of the people. A volley of musketry was fired over the graves by Col. Fisher’s company. An indignation meeting was improvised, Col. Fisher acting president. A short but eloquent address was made by George Hatton, who was followed by F. G. Barbadoes, who concluded his remarks by offering the followign resolutions, which were unanimously adopted:
Resolved, that the colored citizens of the District of Columbia hereby respectfully request the proper authorities to remove the remains of all loyal soldiers now interred at the north end of the Arlington cemetery, among paupers and rebels, to the main body of the grounds at the earliest possible moment.
Resolved, that the following named gentlemen are hereby created a committee to proffer our request and to take such further action in the matter as may be deemed necessary to a successful accomplishment of our wishes: Frederick Douglass, John M. Langston, Rev. Dr. Anderson, William J. Wilson, Col. Charles B. Fisher, William Wormley, Perry Carson, Dr. A. T. Augusta, F. G. Barbadoes.
If any event in the whole history of our connection with the late war embodied more features of disgraceful neglect, or exhibited more clearly the necessity of protecting ourselves from insult, than this behavior at Arlington heights, we at least acknowledge ignorance of it.
We say again that no good, but only harm can result from keeping up the recollection of the bitter strife and bloodshed between North and South, and worse still, in furnishing occasion to white Unionists of proving their hypocrisy towards the negro in the very presence of our dead.
The black soldiers’ graves were never moved; rather, the boundaries of Arlington were gradually expanded to encompass them, in what is now known as Section 27. Most of the graves, originally marked with simple wooden boards, were subsequently marked with proper headstones, though many are listed as “unknown.” In addition to the black Union soldiers interred there, roughly 3,800 civilians, mostly freedmen, lie there as well, many under stones with the simple, but profoundly important, designation of “citizen.” The remains of Confederate prisoners buried there were removed in the early 1900s to a new plot on the western edge of the cemetery complex, where the Confederate Monument would be dedicated in 1914.
Unfortunately, the more things change, the more. . . well, you know. In part because that segment of the cemetery began as a burial ground for blacks, prisoners and others of lesser status, the records for Section 27 are fragmentary. Further, Section 27 has — whether by design or happenstance — suffered an alarming amount of negligence and lack of attention over the years. The Army has promised, and continues to promise, that these problems will be corrected.
As Americans, North and South, we should all expect nothing less.
Images of Section 27, Arlington National Cemetery, © Scott Holter, all rights reserved. Used with permission. Thanks to Coatesian commenter KewHall (no relation) for the research tip.