Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Forgotten tradition to return

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

An 1874 photo shows the grave of 1st Lt. Warrenton G. Roberts of the 28th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops in Fredericksburg National Cemetery. (F. THEODORE MILLER/JERRY AND LOUISE BRENT COLLECTION)

cross posted from the News Desk:

Community to bring back National Cemetery procession begun by African-Americans



In the Fredericksburg area, Memorial Day is about a lot more than barbecues.

Groups of all kinds devote themselves to honoring the fallen and military service, holding ceremonies at multiple sites across the region.

A new group—the 23rd Infantry Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops—will join that roster on Monday, hoping to shed light on part of the area’s history that has largely been forgotten.

Representing a Civil War unit of the same name, re-enactors in the 23rd’s color guard will lead a  procession from Riverfront Park to Fredericksburg National Cemetery for the noon Memorial Day ceremony there.

The National Park Service will host the walk in collaboration with community members and the congregation of Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site). Participants will lay flowers on the graves of a few representative Union soldiers, black and white, in the burial ground.

At the cemetery, the Rev. Lawrence A. Davies, Shiloh’s recently retired pastor, will deliver the Memorial Day program’s keynote address. Davies was Fredericksburg’s mayor for 20 years.

The march will re-create Decoration Day processions that were an annual rite here  for decades after the American Civil War.

From 1868 until at least 1880, African–Americans led those who honored U.S. casualties buried at Willis Hill, where the cemetery was established in 1865 for Federal soldiers who died in area battles or of disease. For seven of the cemetery’s early years, when the war’s emancipationist legacy was still fresh, blacks sponsored the Decoration Day ceremonies. Some years included brass bands and orators, both black and white.

An 1871 observance, sponsored by the Grand Army of the Republic, was attended by 1,500 people, including African–Americans, Unionists and Union veterans.

Monday’s event aims to re-create that first multiracial Memorial Day commemoration and march made by white and black citizens.

Local people (mostly African–Americans) met visiting Union veterans at the train station, formed a procession and marched up National Boulevard (now Lafayette Boulevard) to the cemetery.

The National Park Service is “pleased that the leadership of the black community of Fredericksburg has taken the initiative to honor members of the United States Colored Troops [buried] in the National Cemetery and to take their rightful place alongside their neighbors to honor all of those who have given their lives throughout the American experience to protect our freedom,” park Superintendent Russ Smith said this week.

Fredericksburg National Cemetery’s gate in 1870s, when black citizens decorated the graves of its Union soldiers. (F. THEODORE MILLER/JERRY AND LOUISE BRENT COLLECTION)

More than 180,000 U.S. Colored Troops served the Union. Toward war’s end, a third of all U.S. soldiers in the South were black.

“Now is a time for a new reconciliation among the entire population, recognizing that the Civil War was the  watershed epoch in American history, and an understanding that it affected and continues to affect everyone,” Smith said.

That is especially so this year, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, Smith said.

He views the sesquicentennial as a kind of  “do-over” for the Civil War’s centennial, which left a significant portion of the American people out of the commemorations.

“At best, black people were viewed as recipients of freedom, rather than actors in their own cause, while their white counterparts  celebrated reconciliation between North and South,” Smith said in an interview. “Consequently, black people have not had that much interest in the Civil War.”

It wasn’t always thus.

The first collective Decoration Day ceremony took place on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, and included a parade by some 10,000 people, most of them former slaves, and the decoration of the graves of the Union dead with spring flowers.

In Fredericksburg, observances at the then-new National Cemetery began in 1868 with an African–American excursion from Washington and Richmond, according to Donald Pfanz, staff historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Records are not complete for every year, but the local Decoration Day commemoration was multiracial for at least three years, Pfanz writes in an unpublished book manuscript on the National Cemetery.

The last procession and program sponsored by blacks was in 1880, with “a very large crowd” of African–Americans, he records.

In 1884, the program was sponsored by both Union and Confederate veterans. Blacks were excluded, Pfanz writes.

In 1885, Confederate veterans and local whites held a program at the Confederate Cemetery, then marched to the National Cemetery, where the former Confederates strew flowers on graves.

In 1888, Confederate veterans and four Union veterans marched to the National Cemetery, where both sides gave speeches and decorated the Yankee soldiers’ graves.

Blacks were excluded from the program, in a gentlemen’s agreement reached by the white veterans, Pfanz said in an interview.

Joseph Orton Kerbey, a Union veteran, wrote in an 1890 book of meeting beforehand at town hall with Capt. Dan Lee, a nephew of Robert E. Lee who led the Mathew Fontaine Maury Camp of Confederate veterans, and Maj. Andrew Birdsall, superintendent of the National Cemetery.

Lee offered the camp’s help in decorating the Federal soldiers’ graves.

Lee said “their services were tendered gladly to this end; though they preferred not to be associated with the mob of colored people, who had been in the habit of making a picnic out of the day,” Kerbey wrote.

Kerbey thanked his former foes, but said he had no authority to act for the Grand Army of the Republic. (He was a member of the GAR’s Kit Carson Post in Washington, D.C.) Birdsall accepted the offer, Kerbey recorded.

Pfanz said 1890 was the last  National Cemetery event in which the black community participated. African–Americans held a separate procession and ceremony, decorating soldiers’ graves.

That gradual pattern was repeated in communities across the South, Yale University historian David Blight writes in his book “Race and Reunion.” Blacks initially took leading roles in Memorial Day ceremonies, honoring the Union dead and expressing their newfound liberties as citizens.

But reconciliation between North and South came at a price—the end of black participation in such high-profile events, Blight and Pfanz said.

The institution of postwar Black Codes and the long Jim Crow era that followed further proscribed African–Americans’ rights and their role in public life.

More on Past is Prologue blog:

Clint Schemmer:   540/368-5029


WHAT: Memorial Day procession, ending at  Fredericksburg National Cemetery in time for its noon exercises.  The Rev. Lawrence A. Davies, the recently retired pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, will deliver the keynote address.

WHEN: 10:30 a.m. Monday

WHERE: Starts at Riverfront Park on Sophia Street, then up Charlotte Street to Sheppard Street, to Lafayette Boulevard and the National Cemetery at Sunken Road

DETAILS: Procession and Memorial Day program at the National Cemetery are free, and the public is invited. The walk’s route is about one mile long. Historian-led tours of Sunken Road after the cemetery program. For those with mobility issues, buses will be available at Riverfront Park.

MORE INFO: 540/373-6122