WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Cities, counties and states continue to debate who has ownership of the first Memorial Day, but a Purdue University historian says credit really belongs to thousands of Southern white women.
“If Confederate men would have organized memorials to honor their fallen soldiers in 1866, a year after the Civil War ended, it would have been considered treason against the United States,” says Caroline Janney, an assistant professor of history. “Instead, women organized each event, and the men were figuratively hiding behind the skirts of these women. The memorial celebrations served as shields so that participants could simultaneously criticize the postwar government and praise their ‘Lost Cause.’ What many people don’t realize is that these women, who are often portrayed as politically indifferent, were motivated by politics, too.”
The women, through Ladies’ Memorial Associations, organized dozens of memorials during the spring of 1866 and the years after. While Memorial Day is now a one-day celebration, historically these memorials were scheduled throughout the spring as a sign of renewal and rebirth, and each community chose its own symbolic date on which to gather. For example, some selected the May 10 anniversary of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s death while others settled on April 26, the day Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his troops in 1865.
“People should have a better understanding about the origins of Memorial Day because the Civil War secured the Union and freed 4 million slaves,” Janney says. “The day should not only be about celebrating the lives of servicemen and women, but also celebrating the perseverance of the United States.”
Janney, who is author of “Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause,” has studied these associations, which were formed in Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama. The associations were composed of middle- and upper-class white women. In Janney’s book, she focuses on associations in five Virginia cities: Winchester, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Lynchburg and Richmond.
These local associations are often overlooked in history because the focus has been on larger national organizations, such as the United Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy, that emerged decades after the Civil War ended, Janney says.
“These other groups may be larger, but many people do not realize the power and influence of the Ladies’ Memorial Associations,” she says.
During the war, fallen Confederate soldiers were often left on the battlefield or buried in shallow graves on farmland. Immediately after the war, Virginia women in these associations relocated and interred the remains of more than 72,000 soldiers, which is nearly 28 percent of the 260,000 Confederate soldiers killed.
“These women believed it was imperative that each town establish an annual tradition of placing flowers and evergreens on these graves,” Janney says. “Within a year from the war’s end, white Southern women from Virginia to Alabama established nearly 100 memorial associations.”
Memorial days also were observed in the North, but they were organized by Union veterans beginning in 1868, two years after the ex-Confederate women had established the practice.
“Union speeches at memorial days in the late 1800s rarely made reference to women’s contributions to the war,” Janney says. “In the South, ex-Confederates not only praised the courage and honor of their soldiers, but they always mentioned the women’s efforts during the war and their efforts to commemorate with Confederate cemeteries and memorial days. Women were portrayed as much more important in the South in terms of memory of the war. Union women essentially got left out. It’s not to say they were not participating in memorial days, but they were never the organizers the way in which women had to be in the South.”
History often shows Southern women as not being part of the women’s movement until the early 20th century, but these local associations show that women were more active in politics than many believed, Janney says.
“The women even stood up to the veterans in the 1870s after Reconstruction was over,” she says. “The officers returned and thanked the ladies for their work and said, ‘We can take it from here.’ The ladies said no, ‘We’ve carved out these political and leadership roles for ourselves, and we plan to keep them.’”
As impressive as these women’s efforts were, Janney says their place in history also is controversial.
“There is such a dual legacy about these women, and I’m really torn about how I feel about them,” she says. “On the one hand, I feel they are responsible for some of the racist sentiment that is attached to the Confederacy, and they put in motion this romanticized image of the Confederacy today. Yet these are incredibly high-spirited, passionate women who engaged and fought for what they believed in. Historians will need to consider the good and the bad when examining them.”
“Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause” ($35) was published in March by the University of North Carolina Press.
Janney’s research was supported by Purdue’s Department of History, University of Virginia’s Department of History, the Virginia Historical Society and Duke University.