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|Natchez-Vidalia's oldest Memorial Day observance|
The oldest Memorial Day tradition in Natchez and Vidalia was born in the aftermath of two events 14 decades ago -- a Civil War skirmish at Vidalia in 1864 and the formation two years later of what became the largest veterans organization in the United States.
Anyone near the Mississippi at Vidalia and Natchez on Memorial Day Monday morning will see that tradition come alive again when a parade of predominantly black Americans crosses the bridge to Natchez and journeys to the Natchez National Cemetery.
One man who helped lead the procession for the past decades will be absent this year -- Clarence Randall Jr. of Vidalia died in January at the age of 94. He was a longtime leader of the Vidalia Parson Brownlow Chapter No. 23 of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) which joined with the Natchez John A. Logan No. 24 GAR chapter in celebrating what was originally known as the 30th of May commemoration.
Another longtime participant is 83-year-old Frank Williams of Vidalia, who will be making the long walk again this year. He is commander of the American Legion Sidney Shorter Post 590 in Vidalia. Also part of the tradition is the Women's Relief Corps Chapter of Vidalia.
The May 31st Memorial Day parade will begin with a gathering at the GAR Post No. 23/Legion Hall 604 on North Magnolia Street in Vidalia at 8 a.m. The parade will then form at 8:40 a.m. and cross the bridge to the Natchez toll booth plaza, take a rest and then walk to the cemetery. A memorial program is also slated at 3 p.m. Saturday at the convention center in Vidalia.
"Everybody is welcome to join," says Williams. "We invite all to both of our programs."
The origins of this annual event began at 2:30 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 7, 1864. At Fort McPherson in Natchez. Union Lt. Col. Hubert A. McCaleb, commander of the 2nd Mississippi Heavy Artillery, African Descent, received a dispatch from Union Col. B.G. Farrar, who advised him to "cross the river by the first boat to Vidalia..." where Farrar was being "pressed by overwhelming numbers of the enemy."
Soldiers of African descent had only recently been allowed to serve in the Union army as a result of an Act of Congress on May 22, 1863, creating the formation of regiments of United States Colored Troops. As a result, local black men, all recently emancipated slaves, enlisted in the Union army at Natchez.
McCaleb called to arms seven companies, marched them to the Natchez landing and crossed the Mississippi on the steamer Diligent. The river was high and nightfall was approaching when his men disembarked at the Vidalia landing. Four federal gunboats were on the river -- the U.S.S. Benton, the Rattler, the Champion and the Torrence as well as the tug Fern.
McCaleb's men formed a line at the head of the Trinity Road (leading to present day Jonesville) where he had some of his artillery "planted directly on the road." In the distance, McCaleb watched two columns of Confederates, an estimated 1,500 men, Rebel flags waving, marching in his direction. When the Confederates were within 150 yards, the order to fire was given. McCaleb said his black troops released "one splendid volley, well aimed." They fired again and the Rebs, unable to withstand the artillery onslaught, retreated, leaving behind one killed and five wounded, some mortally.
McCaleb said his "force of 300 colored soldiers," most seeing their first taste of battle, carried the day. "Not a man of my command was hurt." It was the first time local black men, dressed in a Union uniform, were given the opportunity to fight for their own freedom.
Two years later in 1866, the war now over, 12 Yankee veterans gathered in Illinois with an idea to organize a veterans organization. They called it the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). By 1890, it counted more than 400,000 members and five presidents (Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, McKinley.)
GAR had three objectives: (1) Fraternity - meet and talked about war experiences, (2) Charity - help needy vets, widows and orphans; (3) Loyalty - keep alive the memory of those who died in battle and those who served.
According to the Library of Congress, GAR's principal legacy was its annual observance of Decoration Day, which later became known as Memorial Day and is now celebrated on the last Monday of May. Decoration Day was actually inspired by the work of Southern women in Virginia who had faithfully tended and decorated the graves of Confederate dead since the war began.
Gen. John A. Logan, a prominent Yankee commander at Vicksburg during the Civil War for whom the Natchez chapter of GAR is named, was the first commander-in-chief of the national organization. On May 5, 1868, he issued General Order No. 11, declaring that on Decoration Day GAR chapters would honor their fallen comrades "whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land." Each local chapter was to celebrate the day "in their own way" but to always decorate the veterans graves with "the choicest flowers of springtime," raise the flag, and renew the commitment to the fallen "to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation's gratitude -- the soldier's and sailor's and widow and orphan."
Two local GAR chapters followed Gen. Logan's orders -- the one named after Logan in Natchez and the Vidalia chapter, named after Parson Brownlow, a Tennessean, who was once a Methodist circuit rider, a newspaper editor and later the reconstruction governor in his home state.
Clarence Randall Jr.'s presence will be missed this Memorial Day during the walk to the Natchez National Cemetery to fulfill Gen. Logan's General Order No. 11. Ser Boxley of Natchez, who chronicles local African-American history on his website (http://www.forksoftheroads.net/), says Randall loved to talk about the Vidalia battle of Feb. 7, 1864, and "was a living history link to members of the GAR who are buried at the Natchez National Cemetery." Randall first participated in the annual event during his youth in the 1920s. Williams, the American Legion Sidney Short Post 590 commander, also became a participant during his youth.
Before the first Mississippi River Bridge was built, the lodge members from Vidalia crossed the river by ferry, walked to the top of Silver Street and there joined the Natchez John Logan GAR lodge. After the bridge was built in the 1940s, the Vidalia and Natchez lodges began meeting at the old toll bridge plaza.
In 2003, Randall told the Jackson (Miss.) Advocate newspaper that for years the annual event was called "the May 30 parade. And we felt it was our patriotic duty to participate every year. The parade still has a nice size, but not big like it was before. We used to have lots of boy and girl scouts marching. But now it's just ordinary people."
Boxley explained that "just as all European-American descendants in the Natchez area can recall participating in the pilgrimage pageants and balls, Natchez-Vidalia area African-Americans can recall the tradition of the 30th of May."
"Since I was a child in the '30s I've gone to watch the march on 'Yankee Memorial Day' as we called it," remembers Kathie Blankenstein of Natchez. "Although I didn't really understand the significance of it, I found it beautiful and moving, even then. The women always wore white and carried red 'Memorial Day Lilies'."
Today, all of America's fallen veterans of all wars are remembered during the walk to the cemetery, which is also a physical commitment for aging men and women. It's a journey of four miles.
But the commitment to Logan's General Order No. 11 remains very much alive:
"Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided republic...If other eyes grow dull and 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 in us."
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