Memory and the abolitionist heritage: Thomas Wentworth Higginson and the uncertain meaning of the Civil War

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Author: W. Scott Poole
Date: June 2005
From: Civil War History(Vol. 51, Issue 2)
Publisher: Kent State University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,131 words

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After 1877, the American North worked assiduously to forget the deeper meanings of the American Civil War. The practice of "Decorations Day" became, ironically, a ritual of forgetfulness in many Northern communities. An annual decoration of the graves of the Civil War dead, Decoration Day would eventually become known as "Memorial Day," which, by 1890, had become a legal holiday in every Northern state. Speeches and parades marked the day from its beginning, with much of the emphasis falling on the bravery of the Union soldier rather than the legacy of emancipation. As early as the 1870s, celebrants sometimes even commemorated the bravery of the Confederate soldier. (1)

A typical turn-of-the-century Decoration Day was celebrated at Harvard University on May 29, 1904. Appropriately, the event was held at Sanders Theater in Memorial Hall, an imposing Gothic edifice built as an architectural memorial to the loyal sons of Harvard who fell in the Civil War. Themes of reconciliation, themes that had become especially pungent since the outbreak of popular patriotism in the Spanish-American War, reverberated through the keynote speaker's rhetoric. "Each of the contesting parties," he proclaimed of the Blue and the Gray, "now recognize the qualities, the faculties and the daring of its opponents." Going beyond a recognition of the martial prowess of the Union's enemies, the Decoration Day speaker further insisted that Yankees and Rebels had not been separated "by an institution, not even that of slavery, but by two principles of government on which men might honestly differ in opinion--the difference between states rights and the sovereignty of the nation." The keynote went on to suggest the possibility that Harvard honor its Confederate dead as a gesture to "those who had fought bravely on the other side." (2)

Nothing about such rhetoric will surprise those familiar with the language of postbellum reconciliation sentiment. By 1904, a sentimentalized view of the enemy and of the causes of the conflict had become de rigueur in public ruminations about the war. What is surprising about this event is that Thomas Wentworth Higginson, radical abolitionist, supporter of John Brown, and colonel of the first federally authorized black regiment, the 1st South Carolina of African Descent, was the man who delivered these sentiments to the Union veterans of Harvard. If any white Northerner had refused to accept conciliation, one would have imagined it to be Higginson. Yet he did not, choosing to participate in the conspiracy of forgetfulness that fell over so many Union veterans. Or did he? The way that Higginson and other radical abolitionists chose to remember the war for the Union suggests a profound cynicism among these American radicals, not a cynicism about their progressive ideals but about the possibility of fulfilling them within the American national experiment. In a bitter irony, Higginson came to collaborate unknowingly and unwittingly with their former secessionist foes. (3)

If the Decoration Day speech represents an abandonment of the "abolitionist memory" of the war, it is not an isolated case. The birth of the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A133185522