Memorial Day 2009 in Vicksburg
By Earnest McBride
Jackson Advocate Contributing Editor
27 May 2009
Fading memories of the heroism and sacrifices of the men (and women) who fought and died to save the Union at Vicksburg may account for the dwindling numbers of local people who either parade or watch the parade, but even with only a paltry 102 participants, the 101-year-old "May 30" tradition lives on.
It was on May 5, 1868 that Gen. John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, called on the nation’s veterans and the widows and orphans of the Civil War to hold a national day of remembrance on May 30 of that year. Vicksburg, having been the "key" to the salvation of the Union, according to President Abraham Lincoln, played a major role in establishing the national celebration in the years after 1868. All that came about for good reason.
The participants were asked to adhere a solemn that read as follows: "If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us."
The National Military Cemetery at Vicksburg contains 17,500 dead soldiers from the Civil War battles that took place at and around that city of 26,000 residents today. The Vicksburg cemetery contains more Civil War dead than any other cemetery anywhere else. And the 7200 black troops buried there, accounting for 42 percent of the total dead, also represent a record number of black American soldiers buried in one place. At the time that the Vicksburg National Cemetery was set up in 1866, orders were given to collect all the bodies of men who had fought and died within a 66-mile-radius of Vicksburg and to re-bury them at the National Cemetery.
The 7200 black soldiers buried in one quadrant--the northwest quadrant--of the cemetery had all fought as regular Army troops between April 1863 and the end of the War on May 10, 1865.
While 18,000 black troops from Mississippi enlisted in the Union forces, a total of 208,000 black enlistees signed on for the war nationwide between 1863 and 1865. Naval recruits of more than 29,000 are included in the total number. No records of any black soldiers enlisted in the Confederate military exist, according to black military history expert Bennie McRae, the webmaster of the "Lest We Forget" Website. Nevertheless, a contingency by black men in two companies were reported to have been organized after March 23, 1865, the date of General Orders No. 14, implementing an Act to Increase the military force of the Confederate States.
Once known as the "Gibraltar of the Confederacy," Vicksburg was also the hometown of Jefferson Davis, the first and last president of the erstwhile Confederate States of America. The Union soldiers thought it was a matter of poetic justice to have a large black garrison posted in the home of Jefferson Davis south of Vicksburg at Davis Island. A famous photograph shot in July 1863 shows a number of these troops standing beneath a banner reading "The House that Jeff Built." The majority of the garrison at Vicksburg after July, 1863, consisted of black infantry, cavalry and artillerymen hastily recruited as the Union forces plowed under the Confederate resistance.
The black troops first proved themselves at the battle of Milliken’s Bend on June 7, 1863. The heroic performance of the black Union troops also inspired some Confederate generals to propose using black soldiers in their ranks. But Jefferson Davis and Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddons rejected such a proposal, declaring that no black men would be allowed to don Confederate uniforms, except as servants to a certain rank of officers enlisted in the Confederate regiments.
The celebration of Memorial Day at Vicksburg became a local black tradition after 1885, the year of the culmination of the infamous "Mississippi Plan," wherein former Confederates and white supremacists statewide succeded in their plan to displace the former Union officers and most black men from political office in Mississippi. With passage of the "white supremacist" state constitution of 1890, Mississippi soon became the racist model of white domination for the entire South. And Vicksburg was later dubbed the most racist town in the most racist state in the United States.
Despite the loss of their "Yankee" supporters, the black Civil War veterans of Vicksburg and their survivors continued to observe the holiday until 1969. The responsibility of organizing the parades and memorial services were placed in the hands of five all-black units of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a post-Civil War organization similar to the American Legion today. The five GAR posts in and around Vicksburg were counted among about 25 other units statewide. The last members of these units died out around 1924. But the veterans of World War I picked up the Memorial Day banner and continued the celebration until the tradition faded away after 1969.
Former Raymond Postmaster Willie Glasper, the founder of the Sons of Veterans organization, revitalized the "May 30" celebration in 1979. And it has continued to be an annual event recognized by, if not celebrated, by the city government of Vicksburg.