Sunday, May 19, 2013

Denouncing Decoration Day


            About this time of year in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, you could start an argument in New York State if you said you thought Decoration Day was a good idea. Not everybody agreed with the Grand Army of the Republic’s (GAR) practice of strewing flowers on the graves of Union Civil War dead every May 30th.
Daisies gathered for Decoration Day, May 30, 1899. Library of Congress.
            Some people hated Decoration Day for political reasons. They viewed the GAR as an extension of the Republican Party and denounced the day because the GAR was using it as an annual occasion to wave the bloody shirt of war and attack Democrats. War Democrats, supporters of the Civil War once the fighting had begun, were particularly incensed. They were outraged that a partisan organization like the GAR, had secured a monopoly over the business of strewing flowers on the graves of Union soldiers.
            Other critics had a broader reason for denouncing Decoration Day. Led by The New York Times which stated in 1869 that the day was a “conspicuous failure,” they argued that Decoration Day was a divisive event – an annual Northern attack on the pride of the South. As the Times put it, Decoration Day “is an occasion for heaping epithets of infamy on one set of graves while piling flowers upon another set.” Contending that peace would never come to the nation if Decoration Day continued the way it had begun, they called for “a certain forgetfulness” as a means to restore “a happy alliance.”
On Decoration Day 1899,  a Confederate veteran on the left and a Union veteran
 on the right shake hands with a veteran of the Spanish-American War
 in the center. Library of Congress.

            The notion of “a certain forgetfulness” about the reasons for the Civil War was anathema to 19th century black civil rights leaders such as Frederick Douglass who used a Decoration Day stage in New York City to say so, as we shall see.

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