POMEROY — A crowd gathered at the Civil War Memorial in Pomeroy last Saturday in observance of Decoration Day.
Keynote speaker Bill Walker spoke on the relationship between President Ulysses S. Grant and what we now call Memorial Day.
A lifelong resident of Athens, Ohio, Walker retired after a 40-year career practicing law, and has been focusing his attention on history, with emphasis on the Civil War.
“As Memorial Day approaches it behooves each and every one of us to continue this tradition that honors those who gave their lives or served and are now deceased,” Walker began. “Though its first observance cannot be dated with certainty, Decoration Day, now Memorial Day, had its first national observance May 5, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery.”
The existing tradition of laying flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers swelled after the Civil War in both Northern and Southern states. The origins, the importance of a particular date, and who popularized the tradition are a matter of some historical debate, but over the next 150 years, May 30th became a national day of remembrance for all soldiers who lost their lives in service to their country.
In 1868 Congress designated May 30 of that year to observe a nationwide day of remembrance. Such commemorations had become common across the United States, and Congress chose that date for the first national ceremony in part because it did not correspond to the anniversary of any particular or significant battle. After that time May 30 became the most common “Decoration Day” in most states, and was designated a federal holiday as part of the consolidation federal holidays in 1971.
Walker put forward that Ulysses S. Grant’s administration “should be recognized and remembered as the first president to begin the process and take measures implementing and enforcing the equal rights established by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.”
He also concluded that it was appropriate that Grant should be present at the first national observance of Memorial Day.
An estimated 25 to 30 thousand people attended the 1868 ceremony. Orations were given by many, most notably General Ulysses S. Grant, from the veranda of the Arlington Mansion, former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. At the conclusion, mourners walked through a pathway called the “Field of the Dead”, and decorated graves of fallen soldiers.
The following year, Grant was elected President of the United States. This Ohio native had become known for his leadership during the Civil War and for the trust placed in him by President Abraham Lincoln. Now in his role as Commander-in-Chief of the once fragmented nation, he would face even more difficult challenges than perhaps he had encountered on the battlefield.
“Lincoln’s assassination and Andrew Jackson’s presidency threatened the stitching of constitutional equality for all into the fabric of our country. As during the war, into the fray once again stepped Ulysses S. Grant. Elected president in 1869, Grant and his administration started paving the road to equality by guiding through Congress ratification of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution,” Walker said.
Walker continued, this amendment prohibited federal and state government from denying the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous servitude.” Upon its passage, Grant declared the amendment “a measure of grandeur more important than any other act of kindness of the kind from the foundation of our free government to the present day.”
The significance of this amendment was that it granted for the first time the direct participation in American government to African-Americans. Grant was steadfast in his efforts at continued protection of those rights through “vigorous enforcement”, which included federal military rule in Georgia after black representatives had been expelled from the state legislature.
Grant also oversaw the re-entry of Virginia, Texas, Mississippi and Georgia back into the Union.
His efforts to create and enforce fairness and equality in the United States would earn him the respect of some and the scorn of others: “Unfortunately there were cataclysmic responses to reconstruction, the most insidious being the formation of the Ku Klux Klan,” Walker continued.
Grant continued his reconstruction efforts by establishing the Department of Justice and the Office of Solicitor General. He also signed the Naturalization Act of 1870, extending citizenship rights to persons of African descent, previously granted only to white persons.
“With both of these arms Grant tried to grasp and strangle the Klan by prosecution and declaration of martial law in states where the rights of African-Americans were systematically being oppressed,” he said, citing an example of the arrest of over 500 Klansmen by federal troops in South Carolina.
During his second term, Grant vigorously prosecuted violators of the 14th and 15th amendments and used the force of the federal government to suppress insurrection, such as widespread violence directed against African-Americans in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi.
Walker views the Civil Rights Act of 1875 as one of President Grant’s most important accomplishments. The Act allowed access to public eating establishments, hotels, and places of entertainment, though it was declared unconstitutional in an 1883 Supreme Court ruling.
Walker concluded that although Grant was by no means perfect, it would be almost 100 years before another presidential administration showed a similar level of commitment to the advancement of civil rights.
“The next major civil rights legislation was passed during the Eisenhower presidency, followed by the civil rights reforms of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations,” Walker said. “It can be said without qualification that Grant was the first president to begin the process and take measures implementing and enforcing the equality of rights established by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and for this he should be remembered, but unfortunately, by most is not.”
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Lorna Hart is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing. She can be reached at email@example.com.