Memorial Day Reads

Good Afternoon Sky Dancers!!

Today used  to be known as Decoration Day.  It originally commemorated Civil War dead but now–as Memorial Day–it honors all who have fallen in service to our country as members of our armed forces. It became a federal holiday in 1971.  I think I write on this each year, but much to my chagrin, the state of Mississippi just recognized the federal holiday recently. It was a highly controversial move.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed.

The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.

On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

Many Northern states held similar commemorative events and reprised the tradition in subsequent years; by 1890 each one had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states, on the other hand, continued to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I.

There are states in the South that still celebrate the Confederate version of Memorial Day.

In Georgia the day has been called “State Holiday” since 2015, when Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee’s birthday were struck from the state calendar. The state holiday list says the official holiday is April 26 but will be observed this year on Monday, April 24.

New Orleans opened the still deep and contentious wounds of the Confederacy by deciding  what to do with some of our Confederate symbols this month.  Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the city tore down four of the most visible monuments built by Lost Causers years after the surrender of the South. He commemorated the occasion with this speech. This is an interview from NPR he gave shortly after the speech.

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MITCH LANDRIEU: These statues are not just stone and metal. They’re not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.

CORNISH: New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke last Friday after the city took down the last of four Confederate monuments. General Robert E. Lee was the final one to go. It was an address about the decision, about the history of slavery in the city. It was an address about race. A week later, people are still talking about it, dissecting sections of the speech.

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LANDRIEU: This is not about a naive quest to solve all of our problems at once. This is, however, about showing the whole world that we as a city, that we as a people are able to acknowledge, to understand, to reconcile and, more importantly, choose a better future for ourselves, making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong.

He was interviewed by Chuck Todd for MTP.

I’d like to continue quoting the interview from NPR.

CORNISH: I want to quote a letter to the editors of the Times-Picayune, a writer, a citizen named Charles Foy of Madisonville. He says you single-handedly managed to turn innocuous city landmarks into battlegrounds and that these monuments have stood in place for many years. He goes on to say, I can guarantee you that very few people, black or white, gave them a second thought. This is not an uncommon opinion.

LANDRIEU: Well, it’s a silly opinion. I mean that’s the argument that says it all. Mayor, we don’t know anybody that cares about these monuments. That’s because we live a block away and a world apart. And you know, this story that we told was not just about the monuments. You know, the context is that New Orleans got destroyed after Katrina. We’ve been rebuilding our whole city. And as we built back all of our schools and all of our health clinics and all of our hospitals and all of our businesses, we began to think about our public spaces and whether those public spaces really represented who we were as a people. And those monuments stuck out on public spaces like a sore thumb.

And so I asked the people of New Orleans just to think about that, and that speech was really to the people of New Orleans. It wasn’t a speech to the rest of the nation. So it’s quite a surprise that the speech has gotten so much attention across the country. But this is – the issue of race is a complicated issue for the country that we have to walk through. You can’t go around it. You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You have to go right through it, and it’s painful.

CORNISH: Is there a particular moment when you started to think about actually taking the monuments down?

LANDRIEU: Yeah, there was a specific moment. (Laughter) I was having breakfast with Wynton Marsalis about three years ago, and he and I were thinking about what the 300th anniversary of the city would look like, which is, by the way, next year.

And I was trying to prepare the city about how to develop itself and get ready for the future. And he said, you ought to think about those monuments. And I said, you’re crazy. I’ve walked by those monuments every day. And he said, no, I want you to really think about it. And I told him I would.

The removal of the statues came at odd times with the jobbers wearing masks and bullet proof vests.  There was heavy police presence due to a huge contingent of protesters that settled in for awhile.   It was the usual suspects.

It seems like many generations after the Civil War we still have white people trying to make a last stand on a wound that does not heal for any one.  Just as I cannot understand supporting “heritage” of a group of enslavers, I cannot fully understand the struggles of those descended from slaves. Even though I descended from old slave-owing families, all of my family fought on the Union side and was solidly against slavery so the narrative with which I grew up did not include a celebration of the confederacy.

Supporters and opponents of removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments met Sunday afternoon (May 7) at Lee Circle, in a tense and angry confrontation that included some scuffles during a day of demonstrations.

Police quickly broke up a couple of fights, and the dueling protests appeared mostly peaceful. But heated words, slurs and profanities were exchanged, as demonstrators on opposite sides held Confederate flags and protest signs.

A march led by Take ‘Em Down NOLA, which supports the removal of the Confederate monuments, brought hundreds of people from Congo Square to Lee Circle, where they came face-to-face with groups of monument supporters who had been there since the morning. Police said more than 700 people were involved in the demonstrations.

Those advocating the removal of the statues chanted slogans like “Go home racists,” and “Hey hey, ho ho, white supremacy’s got to go.”

On the other side, a monument supporter shouted over a megaphone: “We built this country. If you don’t like it, there are plenty of other non-white countries you can go to!”

I’ve actually seen friendships end and family feuds heat up over the removal of the statues. I’m a preservationist and historian at heart and have been more active and focused on preserving, restoring, and showing our civil rights sites. I’m still waiting for the statue to appear of little Ruby Bridges and the promised memorial at the site where Homer Plessey sat down in a white part of a train. Both of these are within blocks of my home.  I also was probably one of the few people fuming when this same mayor and city council voted to destroy the Woolworth’s building with its historical lunch counter.  I’m still waiting for the statues in memorial of the victims of lynchings too. But, right now, that’s no one’s focus.

The Smithsonian Magazine had a piece on Richmond’s dealings with Confederate History. The city’s monuments became a place of protest when they added a statue of Arthur Ashe in the 90s. Their struggle has been different.

In the past couple of weeks, how we remember and commemorate the Civil War has undergone seismic shifts. The city of New Orleans is in the process of removing four monuments that celebrate Confederate leaders and an 1874 attempt by white supremacists to topple Louisiana’s biracial Reconstruction government. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a court injunction temporarily halted the city’s plans to sell its Robert E. Lee monument while alt-right leader Richard Spencer led a torchlight protest this past weekend reminiscent of Klan rallies of the past. White supremacist support for the Lee statue will likely strengthen and broaden the call to remove this and other Confederate monuments throughout the city. Curiously, however, the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, has not seen a similar outcry. Why?

The city boasts some of the most significant sites of Confederate commemoration. Its famed Monument Avenue is studded with massive statues of Generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart along with the president of the confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Thousands of Confederate soldiers and officers, and Davis himself, are buried in the city’s Hollywood Cemetery—a sacred space for white Southerners grappling with defeat. Veterans’ reunions, battlefields, monument dedications, parades and the opening of the Confederate Museum in 1896 helped solidify the city itself as a shrine to Confederate memory by the beginning of the 20th century. If ever a city was ripe for calls to remove Confederate monuments, it is Richmond.

But beyond scattered acts of vandalism, locals have remained largely quiet. Part of the reason why is that over the years, the city has recognized changing perceptions of the Confederacy—and officials have addressed concerns that public spaces devoted to the city’s past do not sufficiently reflect Richmond’s diversity.

In the past few decades, Richmond has dedicated new monuments that have greatly expanded its commemorative landscape. A statue of homegrown tennis star Arthur Ashe joined Monument Avenue in 1996—arguably one of its most high-profile and controversial additions. While some Richmonders welcomed the statue, others argued that it would “disrupt the theme of the avenue,” and both its supporters and detractors mocked the statue itself.

In 2003, the city dedicated a monument of Abraham Lincoln and his son to mark the president’s April 1865 visit following the abandonment of Richmond by the Confederate government. The dedication helped re-interpret Lincoln’s visit as a symbol of slavery’s end as opposed to the entrance of a conquering tyrant. While in Richmond just 11 days before his assassination, Lincoln famously corrected newly freed slaves who knelt at his feet: “Don’t kneel to me,” Lincoln responded. “That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will afterward enjoy.” Four years after the Lincoln statue was erected, the city installed the Richmond Slavery Reconciliation Statue, a 15-foot bronze sculpture depicting two enslaved individuals embracing not far from the center of Richmond’s former slave market.

So, now the city of Baltimore and its mayor Catherine Pugh will try to find a path for a city with a history of racial divides and strife.  Maryland wasn’t even a Confederate state yet still has signs of the Lost Cause.

New Orleans recently took down its Confederate monuments. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh says she is considering doing the same thing in the city.

“The city does want to remove these,” Pugh told The Baltimore Sun. “We will take a closer look at how we go about following in the footsteps of New Orleans.”

Before former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake left office last year, she added signs in front of four Confederate monuments in Baltimore. The signs said, in part, that the monuments were “part of a propaganda campaign of national pro-Confederate organizations to perpetuate the beliefs of white supremacy, falsify history and support segregation and racial intimidation.”

But Rawlings-Blake stopped short of removing the monuments. She cited costs and logistical concerns, and left the decision to Pugh, who took office in December.

The City Commission has recommended the removal of two specific monuments.

University of Maryland law professor Larry S. Gibson, a commission member, proposed the plan to remove the Roger B. Taney Monument on Mount Vernon Place and the Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson Monument in the Wyman Park Dell.

Gibson said Taney’s statute should be dismantled because his authorship of the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision was “pure racism.” The decision held that African-Americans could not be American citizens.

“In my view, he deserves a place in infamy,” Gibson said of the fifth chief justice of the United States.

Gibson also argued that Baltimore has a disproportionate number of monuments to the Confederacy on its public property. He said that more than twice as many Marylanders fought for the Union as the Confederacy during the Civil War, but the city has only one public monument to the Union.

“Three monuments to the Confederacy is out of proportion,” Gibson said. “Probably a majority of Baltimoreans think there should be none to the Confederacy.”

The commissioners recommended that the statute of Lee and Jackson be offered to the U.S. Park Service to place in Chancellorsville, Va. The two Confederate generals last met in person shortly before the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863.

The commission voted to keep the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Mount Royal Avenue and the Confederate Women’s Monument on West University Parkway, but to add context. Members said they needed to meet again to decide exactly what context they wanted to add.

So, there’s the past.  Axios has the numbers we should know for Memorial Day Present.

Good Monday morning, and wishing a peaceful, restful Memorial Day to you and yours. Pausing to remember a part of the beating heart of America that too often eludes us — the fallen, and the serving:

  •  U.S. military casualties from Operation Iraqi Freedom: 4,411.
  • U.S. military casualties in Afghanistan, from Operation Enduring Freedom: 2,216.
  • U.S. military personnel: 2.1 million (active duty: 1.3 million; Reserves and National Guard: 800,000).
  • Deployed overseas: 200,000.
  • About 20 veterans a day commit suicide, per the Veterans Administration: In 2014, the latest year available, more than 7,400 veterans took their own lives, accounting for 18% of all suicides in America. Veterans make up less than 9% of the U.S. population.”
  • “The Pentagon reported [last year] that 265 active-duty service members killed themselves last year, continuing a trend of unusually high suicide rates that have plagued the U.S. military for at least seven years.”
  • The takeaway, from AP: “Veterans groups say a growing military-civilian disconnect contributes to a feeling that Memorial Day has been overshadowed. More than 12% of the U.S. population served in the armed forces during World War II. That’s down to less than one-half of a percent today, guaranteeing more Americans aren’t personally acquainted with a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.”

There were very few civil war veterans alive when I was born.  The last few of them died when I was still in diapers.  Even as a child I was confused by the number of white people that just seemed to regale the entire Confederacy, its treason, its stain of enslaving human beings, and the entire mess created necessitating the civil rights movements that were chronicled daily on my black and white TV.  As a woman now on the verge of getting her first Social Security check, the fact we still seem to be fighting this war perplexes me to no end.    But then, we now have a President that probably would have happily palled around with Jeff Davis and then entered the South as a Carpetbagger with equal ease.

May-20-1899-Diasies-gathered-for-Decoration-dayThis is President Lincoln’s last address and it was on the reconstruction.  I thought I’d share parts of it with you.

I have been shown a letter on this subject, supposed to be an able one, in which the writer expresses regret that my mind has not seemed to be definitely fixed on the question whether the seceding States, so called, are in the Union or out of it. It would perhaps, add astonishment to his regret, were he to learn that since I have found professed Union men endeavoring to make that question, I have purposely forborne any public expression upon it. As appears to me that question has not been, nor yet is, a practically material one, and that any discussion of it, while it thus remains practically immaterial, could have no effect other than the mischievous one of dividing our friends. As yet, whatever it may hereafter become, that question is bad, as the basis of a controversy, and good for nothing at all–a merely pernicious abstraction.

We all agree that the seceded States, so called, are out of their proper relation with the Union; and that the sole object of the government, civil and military, in regard to those States is to again get them into that proper practical relation. I believe it is not only possible, but in fact, easier to do this, without deciding, or even considering, whether these States have ever been out of the Union, than with it. Finding themselves safely at home, it would be utterly immaterial whether they had ever been abroad. Let us all join in doing the acts necessary to restoring the proper practical relations between these States and the Union; and each forever after, innocently indulge his own opinion whether, in doing the acts, he brought the States from without, into the Union, or only gave them proper assistance, they never having been out of it.

The amount of constituency, so to speak, on which the new Louisiana government rests, would be more satisfactory to all, if it contained fifty, thirty, or even twenty thousand, instead of only about twelve thousand, as it does. It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers. Still the question is not whether the Louisiana government, as it stands, is quite all that is desirable. The question is, “Will it be wiser to take it as it is, and help to improve it; or to reject, and disperse it?” “Can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining, or by discarding her new State government?”

Some twelve thousand voters in the heretofore slave-state of Louisiana have sworn allegiance to the Union, assumed to be the rightful political power of the State, held elections, organized a State government, adopted a free-state constitution, giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man. Their Legislature has already voted to ratify the constitutional amendment recently passed by Congress, abolishing slavery throughout the nation. These twelve thousand persons are thus fully committed to the Union, and to perpetual freedom in the state–committed to the very things, and nearly all the things the nation wants–and they ask the nations recognition and it’s assistance to make good their committal. Now, if we reject, and spurn them, we do our utmost to disorganize and disperse them. We in effect say to the white men “You are worthless, or worse–we will neither help you, nor be helped by you.” To the blacks we say “This cup of liberty which these, your old masters, hold to your lips, we will dash from you, and leave you to the chances of gathering the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and undefined when, where, and how.” If this course, discouraging and paralyzing both white and black, has any tendency to bring Louisiana into proper practical relations with the Union, I have, so far, been unable to perceive it. If, on the contrary, we recognize, and sustain the new government of Louisiana the converse of all this is made true. We encourage the hearts, and nerve the arms of the twelve thousand to adhere to their work, and argue for it, and proselyte for it, and fight for it, and feed it, and grow it, and ripen it to a complete success. The colored man too, in seeing all united for him, is inspired with vigilance, and energy, and daring, to the same end. Grant that he desires the elective franchise, will he not attain it sooner by saving the already advanced steps toward it, than by running backward over them? Concede that the new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it? Again, if we reject Louisiana, we also reject one vote in favor of the proposed amendment to the national Constitution. To meet this proposition, it has been argued that no more than three fourths of those States which have not attempted secession are necessary to validly ratify the amendment. I do not commit myself against this, further than to say that such a ratification would be questionable, and sure to be persistently questioned; while a ratification by three-fourths of all the States would be unquestioned and unquestionable.

I repeat the question, “Can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining or by discarding her new State Government?

What has been said of Louisiana will apply generally to other States. And yet so great peculiarities pertain to each state, and such important and sudden changes occur in the same state; and withal, so new and unprecedented is the whole case, that no exclusive, and inflexible plan can be safely prescribed as to details and colatterals [sic]. Such exclusive, and inflexible plan, would surely become a new entanglement. Important principles may, and must, be inflexible.

This brings me to one of the removed monuments.  The vile one was undoubtedly the Liberty Place Monument.  It celebrates the bloody undoing of what Lincoln said of Louisiana and her government.

The Battle of Liberty Place Monument is a 35-foot stone obelisk that was erected in 1891 in the middle of Canal Street in honor of the “Battle of Liberty Place,” an 1874 insurrection of the Crescent City White League, a group of all white, mostly Confederate veterans, who battled against the racially integrated New Orleans Metropolitan Police and state militia.

The monument was meant to honor the members of the White League who died during the battle. In 1932, the City of New Orleans added a plaque to the monument, explicitly outlining its white supremacist sympathies, which explained that the battle was fought for the “overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers” and that “the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.”

This was a monument to the White League. It was an attempt to overthrow the government of Louisiana and many police officers were killed.Take time to think about that inscription on its base.  You may also find the link to a video interview of descendant of one of those participating in that riot.  Listen to him say that the civil war was about states rights and never about slavery and that there was election fraud like today. It’s the one up there next to the photo of the inscription. This narrative is the narrative of the Lost Cause. It is the narrative of men like David Duke.

On Sept. 14, 1874, the White League stormed the New Orleans police station in an attempted coup d’état to remove the governor of New Orleans, Republican William Kellogg, and replace him with John McEnery, who had been his unsuccessful Democratic challenger in the 1872 election. The White League defeated the city’s integrated police department, and took control of the city for a couple of days before President Ulysses S. Grant sent down federal troops to reclaim the city. The White League quickly surrendered the city upon the arrival of federal troops, and the Battle of Liberty Place monument exists to remember the 100 White League members who died in the battle. That is to say, it exists to celebrate those who died in a failed coup with the explicit purpose of returning Louisiana to a white dominated society.

The White League, formed in 1874, was one of the last white terrorist groups that sprang up during Reconstruction. The Ku Klux Klan started in 1865 upon the completion of the war. The White League was founded by Christopher Columbus Nash, a former Confederate soldier who was a prisoner of war during the Civil War. On April 13, 1873, Nash led a white militia in the Colfax Massacre that killed approximately 150 freed blacks. The massacre erupted following white fury at the election of Kellogg to the governorship in 1872. This battle is one of the single biggest massacres of Reconstruction. Soon thereafter Nash formed the White League.

“Having solely in view the maintenance of our hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization, we appeal to men of our race, of whatever language or nationality, to unite with us against that supreme danger,” read the platform of the White League.

Despite their clear racist and terroristic foundations, they represented a more palatable form of terror than the KKK. The White League was more mainstream than the KKK. This brand of terror had become normalized over the previous decade. The White League openly collaborated with the KKK, Southern Democratic politicians, and white business owners who facilitated the Redeemers movement to terrorize freed blacks and Union sympathizers to swing elections in favor of the Democratic Party.

President Grant was so alarmed by the threat to democracy that the White League posed that he wrote about them in his 1874 State of the Union Address: “White Leagues and other societies were formed; large quantities of arms and ammunition were imported and distributed to these organizations; military drills, with menacing demonstrations, were held, and with all these murders enough were committed to spread terror among those whose political action was to be suppressed, if possible, by these intolerant and criminal proceedings.”

d6369de50b69253980e7506ca02fd87dWhat gets me thinking when I read about all of these deaths is that the morality of our Commander-in-Chief and his/her level headed, informed life-and-death decisions create the basis of what constitutes how we sacrifice our public servants and protectors. Lincoln and Grant knew what it was like to send men to certain death and you can see that gravity in their actions, speeches and lives.  You can feel it when you read about their mistakes and their weaknesses.  You can see it in Lincoln’s depression and in Grant’s heaving drinking.  As Americans, we have always tried to use the lives of our armed forces fully knowing that we’re creating Gold Star Families and fresh graves in Arlington.

Who will be sacrificed by this administration and for what cause will we memorialize them?