"If Vanquished I Am Still Victorious"

By Kinney, Martha E. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

"If Vanquished I Am Still Victorious"


Kinney, Martha E., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Religious and Cultural Symbolism in Virginia's Confederate Memorial Day Celebrations, 1866-1930

ON 10 May 1893, during the annual Confederate Memorial Day ceremonies in Staunton, Virginia, "The Land Where We Were Dreaming," a poem by southern apologist Daniel Bedinger Lucas, was a highlight of the commemoration.' Fifteen years later, at one of Richmond's largest Confederate Memorial Day observances, celebrated that year in conjunction with the unveiling of a monument to Jefferson Davis, Mayor Carlton McCarthy asserted, "And so we, with sublime faith in the cause we have maintained, have elected to honor the chieftain who lead the dance in `the land where we were dreaming."'2

The Confederacy existed as a concrete political reality from 1861 to 1865, but by the late 1870s, the real South of wartime was fading fast from cultural memory. It was being replaced by a land of dreams, dreams that supported the idea of a pleasant, bygone era when "to]ur daughters were fair, our wives devoted, our mothers as brave as they were true" and that proclaimed Confederate soldiers had never been beaten but had just been worn down by whipping Yankees.3

Although the blossoming of the myths of the antebellum South and the Lost Cause occurred for several reasons, one event that ensured their longevity was the yearly celebration throughout the South of Confederate Memorial Day.4 What started in 1866 as a solemn workday to repair soldiers' graves and decorate them with flowers had evolved by the 1880s into a full-fledged spectacle complete with military units, brass bands, florid speakers, and church choirs. In the years after the war, the ritual of Confederate Memorial Day became imbued with cultural and religious symbolism that underscored the gravity of what it meant to be a southerner, the true meaning of what was called "The War between the States," and the incorporation of the reality of defeat into daily living.

Not surprisingly, ceremonial symbolism did not remain static. As times changed and white southerners emerged from economic depression and political upheaval wrought by war, the message of Confederate Memorial Day and the symbolism embedded within it also evolved in important ways that bear examination.5

Social and political circumstances varied throughout the South-states could not even agree on which date the region should mark Confederate Memorial Day.6 The event, however, became an important fixture in the commemoration of the Lost Cause, and Virginia makes a significant case study. Richmond, in particular, was at the center of memorial activity. The former capital of the Confederacy hosted veterans' reunions, erected many monuments, and boasted three Memorial Day celebrations each year.

The earliest was at Oakwood Cemetery, generally held on 10 May. Many of the 16,000 soldiers buried there were men from other states who had died in Richmond hospitals during the final two years of the war. The second remembrance, at the Hebrew Cemetery, commemorated thirty-one Jewish soldiers who fell fighting for the Confederacy. The last commemoration was that in Hollywood Cemetery, generally held during the last two weeks of the month. In the 1890s, the date was fixed on 30 May, the same as Federal Memorial Day. Hollywood contained the graves of more local men than did less prestigious Oakwood and of more famous Confederates than probably any other southern cemetery.7

Even a cursory inspection of the programs of these events reveals that Confederate Memorial Day observances in Richmond resembled a liturgy, complete with hymns, prayers, and thundering sermons. Examined as a liturgy and a ritual, these celebrations evince an intriguing shift in symbolism over the decades.

In Confederate Memorial Day ceremonies, as in other rites, secular and religious, the power of the symbolic lies not in its logic but is instead a product of the emotional connotations evoked by the symbol itself. …

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