Memorial Day in Vicksburg
Who deserves commemoration–Jefferson Davis or Black Union Soldiers?
By Earnest McBride
Jackson Advocate Contributing Editor
22 May 2008
Vicksburg-- Compare the historical fate of black United States Army Sgt. Jack "Big Jack" Jackson with white racist secessionist leader Jefferson Davis, the only president of the aborted Confederate States of America.
Hardly anyone in today’s Mississippi knows of the heroic deeds of Sgt. Jackson, the nation’s first black regimental sergeant. Jackson, who served as the top NCO of the First Mississippi Regiment of the newly-formed United States Colored Troops (USCT), recruited recently-emancipated black men at Vicksburg in April and May of 1863. The First Mississippi (African Descent) regiment was formed only weeks before the historically important Battle of Milliken’s Bend on June 7, 1873, and Big Jack Jackson died while leading his raw black recruits against twice their number of Confederates with nearly two years of combat experience behind them. Although Milliken’s Bend was only a small wisp of a town (no longer existent) across the Mississippi just northwest of Vicksburg, it served as the headquarters of General Ulysses S. Grant where he planned and launched his great Vicksburg Campaign..
In contrast to the story of Big Jackson, everybody across the United States has heard of Jefferson Davis. The Vicksburg Post, the city’s 125-year-old white-owned daily newspaper, devoted a 14-part series to Davis, running from Mother’s Day through Memorial Day, May 25 in commemoration of his 200th birthday. The Vicksburg Post, like half the rest of the country today, represents Jefferson Davis as a heroic--though tragic--military leader who fought for an ideal and lost. Hardly anyone today characterizes him as the treasonous scoundrel he was actually determined to be after a thorough investigation by the United States Congress, the military and the Justice Department.
So who gets kudos for bravery and loyalty to a national cause in Vicksburg this Memorial Day? White traitor Jefferson Davis, of course, and not American loyalist Big Jack Jackson.
A three-day celebration of Davis’ 200th birthday took place at several select venues in Vicksburg and Warren County. No one commemorated the bravery and loyalty of Sgt. Jack Jackson, however, or took note of the 18,000 black troops from Mississippi who fought and died to preserve the Union. More than 7200 of these troops are buried in the Vicksburg National Cemetery, the largest single group of black soldiers buried anywhere in the United States.
The formation of the first 10 of 175 black regiments that numbered 208,000 men altogether–the United States Colored Troops (USCT)--- occurred at Vicksburg and other locations along the Mississippi River beginning in March and April of 1863. The raw recruits were rushed into the war against seasoned white Confederate soldiers and surprisingly won the first battles they engaged in. The Battle at Milliken’s Bend, the location of an extinct northeastern Louisiana town that served as General Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters as he planned his Vicksburg Campaign between January and May 1863. Grant deployed three black regiments and two white units at Milliken’s Bend, Young’s Point and Mounds to guard his rear as he dashed off into the interior of Mississippi at Grand Gulf. These troops were severely tested and proved themselves on June 7, 1863, sixteen into the Siege of Vicksburg
Although Memorial Day celebration in Vicksburg is a longstanding black tradition, no one ever celebrates the role of those black troops in winning the War, particularly in winning the campaign for Vicksburg, Lincoln’s purported "key to victory." (White leaders of Vicksburg resented the fact that the city fell on July 4, 1863 and for more than a century avoided any celebration of U.S. holidays related to the Civil War, their great "Lost Cause.")
Even as reputable a black soldier as Sgt. James O. Bowman, an ROTC instructor at Vicksburg High School and this year’s keynote speaker at the Memorial Day exercises held at Vicksburg City Auditorium following the annual parade through downtown Vicksburg, offered generous amends to Jefferson Davis and his Confederates, saying that "he was a soldier who fought for an idea and a cause." Bowman, a native of Edgefield, South Carolina, saw nothing wrong with celebrating Davis’ 200th birthday during the Memorial Day weekend in Vicksburg.
"He fought for a belief," Bowman says. "What do we fight for today–a belief? So I have no objections to the local celebration of Jefferson Davis’ birthday."
Bowman’s keynote address covered the enduring significance of Memorial Day. "Memorial Day was established to remember those who have died in all the conflicts of the United States with other nations," Bowman said. "It began with a ceremony at Waterloo, Iowa, in 1866. Although the first observance came after the Civil War in 1868 on the order of the adjutant general of the time, we also include the men who died as early as 1775 in the struggle for independence. Crispus Attacks, a black man from the Boston area, was the first person to be killed in defense of the United States in the fight for Independence against the British."
Bowman says he detects a growing awareness among his ROTC students of the great sacrifices soldiers sometimes have to make. But he encourages those students to also see the benefits of military service in preparation for ordinary life.
"The military offers enormous opportunities today," he says. "Everything you find in the civilian or business world, you find in the armed services. You can launch a very lucrative career through the Army or Navy training program. If you donate four years to service, you can get a skilled trade. And you can save money and get a full education.
Bowman says that he would recommend military service to nearly all the young men and women coming through the school system today. "Some do give their lives. But we commemorate these fallen troops. And we observe Memorial Day as a day to honor those who stood and fought so that we could pursue our individual chosen lives."
Charles Scott, the former state commander of the American Legion, the first black veteran to attain that supreme post, has long been an active supporter and organizer of Memorial Day events in Vicksburg. A veteran with 32-years in service, Scott lives in Vicksburg and currently serves as commander of state American Legion sixth district, an area encompassing Jackson, Vicksburg, Ridgeland and other post sites in central Mississippi.
"Memorial Day means as much today as it ever has," says Scott, a retired Army Sgt. Major
"We need to recognize the men and women who died for the freedom of this country. We had a good turnout last year. We didn’t have quite as many to turn out this year as we had last year, but it was still a good turnout."
Willie Glasper almost single-handedly revived the holiday celebration in 1979 after witnessing a decade of waning interest in Memorial Day in Vicksburg. Although he is not a veteran of a service branch, Glasper said he was inspired by the examples of his father and older brother, both Army veterans. As program director of the city’s second most popular radio station, Glasper combined forces with the Tyner-Ford Post American Legion in 1979 and was able to generate a high level of interest enough among the 25,000 black people of Vicksburg and Warren County to launch the festive Memorial Day parade and forum at City Auditorium again.
"I grew up when Memorial Day was a major celebration in our community," I knew that it was a celebration of the soldiers and other fighting men who had given service to the country in the World Wars, in Korea and Vietnam. I didn’t know that much about the Civil War at the time, I wanted to honor both my father and brother and wanted to provide the occasion for the rest of the community to honor the fighting men and women of our time just as our parents and grandparents had done."
Glasper once complained that for twenty of the past twenty-five years local and federal officials seemed hell-bent on stifling the celebration of all important national holidays in Vicksburg. "Neither the city of Vicksburg nor the United States military supported us as they had in the past. Apart from the Tyner-Ford American Legion Post, we couldn't get any of the military posts here to support us. I have to give credit to Tyner-Ford because they have always been there for us. But we couldn't get the local high school bands to march or the white veteran groups to help us. The school district said they would leave the choice up to each school and the band directors. But none of those people would cooperate for some reason."
One especially galling slight occurred here in 1996, says Glasper, at the time when a massive community turnout occurred for the passing of the Olympic Torch for the Atlanta games later that summer. All the local school bands and the bands from nearby military installations participated. This passing of the Torch occurred just two days before the Memorial Day celebration in Vicksburg. Yet those same marching bands were curiously unavailable for the May 30 parade in 1996.
"Someone here decided to make Veteran's Day (November 11) the major event of this kind in Vicksburg," Glasper complains. "I couldn't get them to come to the Memorial Day services or participate in the parade. What will change this would be the presence here of one of our top national leaders, either the President or the Vice President of the United States. I've been trying to get the Vice President to come here. Some high dignitary would bring the crowds out."
With its continuing slow fade into insignificance, Memorial Day's ultimate disappearance from Vicksburg will have a far-reaching impact, Glasper said. School children, whose understanding of patriotism develops out of a respect for the sacrifices of earlier patriots, will lose out on this basic educational opportunity, Glasper feels. More generally, he says, the notion of "civic responsibility" will suffer in the loss of Memorial Day activities.
Memorial Day was given its official birth on May 30, 1868, as a cooperative effort between the active Army and the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Civil War veteran's organization that both preceded and served as the model for the American Legion. The first GAR Commander, Gen. John Alexander Logan, was informed on that date by Army Adjutant General Norton P. Clipman that "the nation was eager to honor those who died fighting." The earliest commemoration was called "Memorial Day," although the name "Decoration Day" was used for many years.
Two commemorative exercises at Vicksburg, however, take precedence over all the other claims to "memorializing" or "decorating" the Civil War dead. The celebration of July 4, 1864, at Vicksburg was given coverage nationwide, since it was the first such holiday here after the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. Inside the city proper, nothing much took place on July 4, 1864. But at Davis Bend, a few miles south of Vicksburg, thousands of black and white pro-Union Americans rocked the river from noon until late in the evening. There was another official "dedication" to the Union Soldiers here in 1865, which can also lay claim to being the nation's first Memorial Day.
Gordon Cotton, the former curator of the Old Courthouse Museum, the nation’s number-one center devoted to things concerning the Jefferson Davis legacy, wrote the long series on Davis currently running in the Vicksburg Post. Cotton considers Davis to be more a national hero than Abraham Lincoln. His entire career as museum curator was an exercise in the defense of the "Lost Cause;" that is, Jefferson Davis’ losing of the Civil War and the loss of all hopes of forging a new nation out of the 14 Southern states.
"He had a star-crossed career," Cotton says of Davis. "It’s absolutely amazing, the things that happened to him. He lived such a fascinating life that I can't help but admire him. Like many Southerners, I also admire him for never apologizing for his role in the war. He hung in there, gave it his best shot and said he'd do it all over again if he had the chance."
A legislative bill proposed for "organizing and planning a celebration" of Davis’ 200th birthday passed the house of representatives but failed to get out of the senate appropriations committee for consideration of both houses. The 18,000 black and white soldiers buried at Vicksburg, however, still await the recognition from public and private officials and citizens of their indebtedness to these brave soldiers.
There should be no question of who should get the nation’s greetings on Memorial Day: The many soldiers who fought and died for black freedom and the liberation of all mankind.
(The story of the First Mississippi (African Descent) regimental Sgt. Jack "Big Jack" Jackson’s story is told in a few brief paragraphs found in Noah Andre Trudeau’s book Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865 (Little Brown Publishers, 1998))