Civil War Commemorations

Although military actions ceased after four years, the battle to shape historical interpretation of the Civil War has involved generations of Mississippians and other southerners. In the years following Appomattox, former Confederates validated their actions by promulgating a version of the past in which a utopian, agrarian South seceded to preserve the constitutional rights of states, the North’s overwhelming numbers and resources triumphed despite superior Confederate military ability, and Reconstruction constituted a tragic period of corrupt administration by northern carpetbaggers, former slaves, and southern scalawags brought to a halt only when white southerners “redeemed” political control of their state governments from federal intervention. Despite the sway this depiction held with later generations of white Mississippians, alternative interpretations of this past have always existed within the state.

Even before hostilities ceased, federal forces erected a monument to commemorate the first anniversary of Grant’s victory at Vicksburg. Soon after the war, the federal government created the National Cemetery System to care for fallen soldiers’ remains. In Mississippi, this postbellum burial project created cemeteries on the battlefields at Vicksburg and Corinth and another at Natchez. These protected enclaves both honored the Union dead and distinguished them from their enemies, most of whom remained scattered across the countryside in shallow, unmarked graves unless family members or residents of a nearby town provided a proper burial.

Mississippi Confederate commemorative activity immediately after the war also concentrated on the dead. Annual Decoration Day ceremonies in the spring provided opportunities to place floral tributes on graves, while orators recalled the sacrifices of the fallen and defended the righteousness of their cause. Approximately sixty communities in the state possess either separate Confederate cemeteries or plots. Several “ladies’ memorial associations” formed to tend the graves, sponsor Decoration Day programs, and begin planning for memorials. In 1871 Liberty raised the state’s first Confederate monument, with five other communities following during Reconstruction. Before the turn of the twentieth century at least sixteen more monuments appeared on the state’s landscape. The predominant focus was memorializing the dead, as evidenced by inscriptions, designs (typically Victorian motifs with funereal connotations such as obelisks and urns), and location (usually inside a cemetery or on church grounds).

Under Pres. Andrew Johnson’s lenient plan for Reconstruction, white southerners resumed control of the state and began planning to preserve Mississippi’s Confederate history. In August 1865 the new legislature revived an 1864 law creating a superintendent of army records to compile a list of state residents with Confederate or state military service and to identify when and where the dead had fallen. The legislature also provided funds for the Vicksburg Confederate Cemetery Association reinterment project as well as for two different Virginia groups working to remove Mississippians’ remains to nearby cemeteries. In addition, the politicians ratified the creation of a new county named after Robert E. Lee (Lee County) and approved the creation of another, Davis County, in the Piney Woods region, to honor for Jefferson Davis.

By March 1867 Congressional Reconstruction brought forth federal military oversight. A Republican Party comprised of newly enfranchised freedmen and northern transplants gained power and quickly renamed Davis County and named several counties for the Union (Union County) and Republican political leaders (Alcorn, Lincoln, Sumner, and Colfax). With the end of Republican Reconstruction, Democrats changed Sumner County to Webster County and Colfax County to Clay County. In 1906 legislators created Jefferson Davis County to honor the Confederate president and Forrest County to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest.

During this period, both African American and white Union veterans enrolled in Grand Army of the Republic camps across the state. Even after white Democrats regained control of the state by 1877, the legislature made few gestures toward honoring Confederate history over the next decade.

By the late 1880s, however, veterans’ associations for those who had worn the gray and auxiliary groups began forming in communities across Mississippi. The United Confederate Veterans (UCV) came into existence in 1889, and by 1900 the state division reported eighty camps. Primarily a social organization, the UCV held local, state, and regional reunions that proved popular among both members and white southern society in general. However, the UCV also evinced concern for how future generations would view Confederate soldiers’ actions. The organization’s history committee rated the sectional bias of textbooks and called for a “renaissance” in southern history. The UCV also lobbied for Confederate veterans’ pensions and battlefield preservation.

In 1899, at the urging of the UCV, the Grand Army of the Republic, and various state legislators, the federal government created Vicksburg National Military Park, spending almost fifty-nine thousand dollars for the initial land purchase of just under thirteen hundred acres. Veterans from both sides converged on the new park to map the terrain so that their states could properly mark the historic siege. In 1909 Mississippi became the first southern state to dedicate a monument on the site. Reconciliation was the theme of this federal bastion, and both Union and Confederate memorials ignored slavery and secession, focusing instead on the heroism displayed by both forces.

As the UCV’s members aged, two organizations formed to share the historical burden—the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1895 and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) in 1896. The SCV’s major achievement in Mississippi was the purchase of Jefferson Davis’s home, Beauvoir, on the Gulf Coast and its establishment as a Confederate Soldiers’ Home. In 1905 the organization ceded the property to the state, which accepted responsibility for the administration and expenses of the Soldiers’ Home. In 1915 Mississippi had 10 SCV camps and 107 UDC chapters and a total of 3,653 members. The women were much more active than their male counterparts, lobbying the legislature for increased appropriations for Beauvoir and for the preservation of the Governor’s Mansion and the Old Capitol, organizing Decoration Day observances as well as other Confederate holidays, raising funds for scholarships, watching over history textbooks, and sponsoring an auxiliary, Children of the Confederacy. The UDC also concentrated on building Confederate monuments, playing a significant role in the construction of forty-six of the fifty-two memorials erected in the state between 1895 and the start of World War I.

After the early 1890s Confederate commemorations expanded beyond simple grief for the dead to pay tribute to soldiers who had survived as well as to women and Confederate descendants: “God of our fathers,” begs the Brooksville monument, “help us to preserve for our children the priceless treasure of the true story of the Confederate soldier.” Memorials also began to be erected in public locales such as courthouse grounds, serving as important daily reminders of the past. Monuments also began to include figural sculpture—most commonly the solitary sentinel but also more elaborate versions such as Yazoo City’s statue of a woman presenting a banner to a Confederate soldier.

Erected on the cusp of this transition, the 1891 state Confederate monument in Jackson has features from both traditions. The original funereal impulse is apparent in the lone exterior inscription, “To the Confederate Dead of Mississippi,” and in the life-sized sculpture of Jefferson Davis (who died just before the monument’s construction) in the cryptlike vault at the base. However, the memorial rests on the Capitol grounds and features a solitary soldier atop the tall shaft. An engraving within the vault exults, “Truth will shine in history and blossom into song.” The state’s ten-thousand-dollar contribution was the largest single donation to the monument’s construction.

State mandates and appropriations greatly assisted other Confederate commemorative activity as well. Textbooks with a northern bias started to receive censure with an 1890 law. Four years later, the government adopted a state flag that included the St. Andrew’s Cross of the Confederate battle flag. Three Confederate-related holidays received state sanction: the birthdays of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee and Confederate Memorial Day. Among many other gestures toward the boys in gray, the 1906 legislature enacted a law permitting county and city contributions toward local Confederate monuments, and over the next two decades, at least twenty counties donated large sums. The state itself supplied seventy-five hundred dollars for the Monument to Women of the Confederacy, dedicated on the grounds of the New Capitol in 1917.

During both the Spanish-American War in 1898 and World War I nearly two decades later, Mississippians and other southerners espoused a patriotic enthusiasm that did much to promote national unity. After 1910, as the number of surviving Confederate veterans dwindled, fewer communities observed Decoration Day, the momentum of monument building slowed, and membership in the SCV and UDC declined. However, the Confederate interpretation of history retained considerable influence over white Mississippians, and national allegiance did not necessarily preclude pride in a sectional identity tied closely to a secessionist past.

Mississippi’s African Americans, however, retained an alternative historical view that recalled the horrors of enslavement, the joy of emancipation, and the pride of political participation during Reconstruction. Without state support and in a hostile environment, families and communities relied heavily on oral tradition to transmit their version of events. Columbus’s black population held an annual emancipation celebration on 8 May that involved a parade, a church service, a barbecue, dancing, baseball, and a bonfire. In both Natchez and Vicksburg, African Americans paraded to their local national cemetery on Memorial Day, a holiday that most white southerners eschewed as a consequence of its Union origins. By the 1920s popular and scholarly accounts of black history had begun to supplement these family legends and local ceremonies.

In the early 1960s the federal Civil War Centennial Commission urged a program of national reconciliation that focused on the heroism of both sides. The Mississippi Commission on the War between the States, however, viewed the occasion as an opportunity to bolster the cause of white supremacy against the recent challenges of the civil rights movement. In addition to boosting state revenues with tourist dollars, the Mississippi Commission used the commemoration to improve the state’s image in the rest of the nation and to foster regional loyalty among the state’s white inhabitants. An estimated one hundred thousand people watched the 1961 Secession Day procession, in which Confederate-clad regiments from eighty-nine Mississippi communities marched through Jackson. Over the next four years, centennial speakers across the state esteemed the principles that had led their forebears into battle.

Recognizing historical parallels, segregationists had adopted the Confederate banner and anthem, “Dixie,” for the States’ Rights Party in 1948 and subsequently for other organizations. In the mid-1960s civil rights activists began to publicly challenge these symbols. Beginning with James Meredith’s 1966 March against Fear, activists verbally condemned courthouse Confederate monuments. During the early 1970s, African American students at the University of Mississippi burned Confederate flags. By the 1980s the institution’s Confederate symbols had become the focus of a decades-long dialogue, and the university has sought to discourage fans from displaying the Confederate flag at sporting events.

In 2001 Mississippi voters weighed in on the question of whether the state flag should continue to contain the Confederate symbol. Although a majority favored retaining the current flag, the contest demonstrated the resilience of an alternative interpretation that had gained adherence among a growing number of white Mississippians as well as African Americans. By the twenty-first century, the state no longer granted the traditional Confederate historical construction exclusive official endorsement. In 2000 the legislature provided $2.8 million for the development of sites significant in African American history, including the erection of a monument honoring black Union soldiers buried in the Vicksburg National Cemetery as well as grants for the Natchez slave market, a former slave/contraband camp in Corinth, and the slave quarters at the Tullis-Toledano House in Biloxi.

The issue of the state flag returned to prominence in 2015 in the wake of shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, perpetrated by a gunman who used the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of white supremacy. Several cities in the state announced they would no longer fly the state flag on city property as long as it contains the Confederate emblem, and numerous prominent Mississippians publicly called for the emblem’s removal from the state flag.

Further Reading

  • David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001)
  • Karen Cox, Dixie’s Daughters (2003)
  • Mary Ann Dazey, Mississippi Folklore Register (Spring 1980)
  • Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865–1913 (1987)
  • J. Michael Martinez, William D. Richardson, and Ron McNinch-Su, Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South (2000)
  • Sally Leigh McWhite, “Echoes of the Lost Cause: Civil War Reverberations in Mississippi from 1865 to 2001” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2003)
  • Jerry Mitchell, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (17 August 2015)
  • Michael Alan Upton, “‘Keeping the Faith with the University Greys’: Ole Miss as Lieu de Memoire” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 2002)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Civil War Commemorations
  • Author
  • Keywords civil war, commemorations
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 2, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 13, 2018