“A West Coaster’s Experience of Confederate Memorial Day” by Nils Skudra
On May 10th of this year, I had the opportunity to attend the annual Confederate Memorial Day ceremony at Green Hill Cemetery in Greensboro, North Carolina. I recently graduated with my Master’s Degree in History from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where my specialization was in the Civil War/Reconstruction period, and this event therefore appealed to me because of its relevance to my topic of interest. In addition, as a native Californian reared in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had never been to a Confederate Memorial Day service prior to this occasion and I was very eager to have this experience. My mother and I had contemplated not going to the service due to the thunderstorms that were taking place and a serious problem that was affecting our car – at one point it would not start at all for a few minutes before it finally worked. Fortunately, I had two Civil War reenactor friends who make independent Civil War-themed movies and also had their sights set on the event, so they were willing to pick us up and take us to the ceremony. The thunderstorms abruptly stopped, though the sky remained overcast, and we began our journey to the Cemetery under essentially good weather conditions.
Upon arriving at the ceremony, we found a unit of Confederate artillery reenactors, outfitted in the proper attire of a Confederate artillery crew and manning a reproduction Civil War cannon, standing at readiness in preparation for the salvos that they would be firing in commemoration of Confederate dead. As we strode up to the Confederate soldier statue where the memorial service was taking place, we passed graves that sported small Confederate battle flags, definitively marking these as the graves of Confederate soldiers. When we arrived at the monument, we found a crowd of people in attendance along with a unit of Confederate infantry. Also in attendance were several speakers from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, each seated in front of the statue, featuring the U.S. flag, the Confederacy’s third national flag and the state flag of North Carolina as well as the Stars and Bars (the first Confederate national flag) on a flag pole to the rear right. The infantry reenactors were dressed in the gray and butternut uniforms that Confederate infantrymen would have worn during the Civil War, and they would later perform the service of firing a three-volley salute in honor of their forebears. While I had previously attended many Civil War reenactments in California in which the soldiers of both sides would fire salutary volleys in the air following a battle, this was my first occasion attending a memorial service in which salutary gunfire was given exclusively for Confederate dead by an exclusively Confederate group of reenactors.
Among the first speeches of the ceremony was that delivered by Ann Nolan, vice president of the Guilford chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who elaborated upon the history of Confederate Memorial Day which originated in Columbus, Georgia in the aftermath of the war when the white women of that city organized a Ladies Memorial Association in order to reinter and commemorate Confederate dead. She maintained that Columbus was the site of the last major battle of the Civil War, although I must add parenthetically that this claim was disputed by one of my reenactor friends since he pointed to two different sites which vie for the status of last Civil War battle site, including a certain location in western North Carolina and Palmito Ranch, Texas. Upon looking up the Battle of Columbus online, I learned that it was in fact the last major engagement of the 1865 Alabama-Georgia campaign during the war, but given that several remaining engagements took place elsewhere in the aftermath of this battle, I would concur with my friend that presenting the Battle of Columbus as the last major engagement of the war itself constituted stretching the facts to a certain extent. Nonetheless, the information that Ms. Nolan revealed about the origins of Confederate Memorial Day, which was first referenced by name in a newspaper article that covered the activities of Southern Ladies Memorial Associations, was very intriguing.
Among the highlights of the ceremony were the pledges of allegiance made to the different flags by the SCV and UDC representatives and the audience. After swearing a pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag, they proceeded to make one to the Confederate national flag, which included a reference to the cause it represents. This was both fascinating and disturbing since the people in attendance were proclaiming their fealty to two American national flags, in contrast to the customary pledge of sole allegiance to the U.S. flag which is made in classrooms throughout the nation, but at the same time the wording of the Confederate pledge made no explicit indication of the nature of the cause that the Confederate flag represents. For much of the American public today, the cause represented by the Confederate battle flag is identified with slavery and white supremacy, which is solidly supported by the antebellum and wartime rhetoric of Confederate leaders themselves who emphasized these themes as the foundation of the Confederacy’s existence. In addition, the ardent Confederate journalist William Tappan Thompson explicitly identified this cause with the meaning of the Confederacy’s second national flag (referred to as the “Stainless Banner”) in his wartime newspaper editorials, asserting that its white field represented the cause of white civilization and that the new banner would take its place among the emblems of the world as the “white man’s flag.”
However, the omission of these issues from the Confederate pledge’s reference to the cause for which the flag stands reflected what I considered to be a lack of sensitivity toward other people’s beliefs about what that cause represented. In addition, the rhetoric of the spokespeople, which emphasized the Confederate soldiers’ struggle for their rights and honor, further illustrated the neo-Confederate agenda of present-day Confederate heritage groups which seek to marginalize and deny slavery’s role as the central cause of the Civil War and as a motivating factor which underlay the Confederacy’s bid for Southern independence. Having studied a great deal about wartime dissent in the Confederacy, a strong contradiction I have found is that while Confederate soldiers may have seen themselves as fighting for their rights, those rights were in fact being violated by their own government on the home front since the Confederate administration penetrated into the lives of ordinary citizens through such unpopular measures as the national draft and the “tax-in-kind” policy which fell heavily upon poor non-slaveholding whites, prompting many to turn against the Confederacy by engaging in subversive activity.
The final speaker for the event was Ronnie Roach, the Department Commander of the SCV chapter of the Army of Northern Virginia. He delivered a speech that harkened to the Biblical story of King David’s civil war against his son Absalom as a parallel to the American Civil War, pointing out that although the previously accepted death toll stood at 620,000, more recent estimates have placed it at an even higher rate of 750,000. As a testament to the measure of sacrifice that this enormity encompassed, he cited the examples of several Confederate regiments that sustained particularly substantial casualty rates in significant Civil War battles, including the 26th North Carolina Infantry which was completely decimated over the course of the Battle of Gettysburg, with a total of approximately 90% killed, wounded or missing out of 800 men it fielded. He effectively placed the soldiers of the Confederacy on a par with those of the American Revolution, the frontiersmen who defended the Alamo, the GI’s who stormed the beaches of Normandy, and American servicemen who have served throughout this nation’s subsequent conflicts. In conclusion, he pointedly emphasized this legacy as the heritage of Southerners and urged the audience to continue passing it on to subsequent generations. While this emotional appeal was very poignant, I felt that the tens of thousands of Southerners who served in the Union Army or engaged in anti-Confederate activity on the home front also merited attention, as they, too, form a part of North Carolinian and Southern heritage more broadly.
The final services for the ceremony included a three-volley salute by the Confederate infantry and three cannon shots by the artillery unit, followed by the singing of “Dixie,” the South’s treasured regional anthem. As a transplanted Californian, my attendance at Confederate Memorial Day for the first time was a very intriguing experience for me, as it provided a powerful and striking reminder of how strongly Civil War heritage is felt by Southerners and the pride that so many of them take in honoring their Confederate ancestors. At the same time, the event also testified to the persistent strength of the Lost Cause narrative in the mindset of a substantial segment of Southern society since the issues of slavery, race, and Southern Unionists were completely omitted from the ceremony, a testament, in my view, to the degree to which this more multifaceted history is still not grasped by many Southerners in the present time. In light of the ongoing controversy surrounding Confederate monuments, I firmly believe that it is vital for today’s generation in the South to take a more in-depth look into these aspects of their Civil War history in order that they may attain a greater understanding of the various nuances that characterize their region’s experience of the conflict.