From the 1870s to the 1930s, Vickburg routinely had three different Memorial Day observances: one for Confederate veterans; one for white Union veterans; and one for black Union veterans.
April 26 was designated Confederate Memorial Day in Mississippi. On this day, thousands gathered at the Confederate section of the city cemetery. Events were often organized in a joint effort by the Ladies Confederate Cemetery Association and the United Confederate Veterans. From 1893 to the 1920s, this tradition continued. But after World War I, Confederate Memorial Day was moved from the date of April 26 to the Sunday closest to that date, “a sure sign that schools and businesses were no longer willing to shut their doors to honor the Confederacy,” according to historian Christopher Waldrep. (p. 245)
White Union Veterans
White Union veterans, segregated into their own G.A.R. post, appear to have held separate Memorial Day observances from their black counterparts. Christopher Waldrep, in his book, Vicksburg’s Long Shadow, makes explicit mention of blacks holding separate commemorative activities at the National Cemetery, but he provides scarce information about what is implied to be separate Memorial Day activities for white Union veterans.
Even after more than two hours of additional research in preparation for this blog post, in both online and offline sources, I find virtually no mention about white Union veterans’ Memorial Day activities in Vicksburg. Clearly, this is something that needs to go on my “to do” list, to explore further.
Black Union Veterans
What is well-documented is that the National Cemetery at Vicksburg became an honored gathering place for black Union veterans in the post-war years, and well into the 20th century. Here, although restricted still by segregation, even in death, the black Union veterans could be buried with dignity and honor, with a Federal headstone. In 1887, more than 1,000 black veterans marched to the cemetery; after World War I, more than 10,000 participated in memorial events.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a routine and expected part of the Memorial Day ritual, given new significance by the setting in which it was read, and those who composed the audience. They were gathered there to herald a “new birth of freedom” and honor those who had died.
Read more about African-American commemorative celebrations:
And why Memorial Day is not just a day to loaf at the lake, eat hot dogs, or go to a baseball game:
William A. Blair, Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2004).
David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2001).
Kathleen Ann Clark, Defining Moments: African American Commemoration and Political Culture in the South, 1863-1913 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2005).
Barbara A. Gannon, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic, (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011).