Echoes of Reconstruction: Faded Echoes of Memorial Day 1872

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog

Memorial Day, then called “Decoration Day,” was begun in a variety of places at the end of the Civil War to memorialize the dead of the conflict. By 1872, just seven years after Appomattox, it was widely celebrated in the North on May 30. There were great commemorative activities planned for the day in New York City, but a torrential downpour dampened the day and some events were canceled or postponed.

Still, a parade set out from Union Square in Manhattan, with many of the marchers taking the ferry to Brooklyn to Green Wood Cemetery and eventually marching to the Union cemetery in Cypress Hills. Irish Brigade veterans assembled in Calvary Catholic Cemetery near Cypress Hills to conduct ceremonies near the graves of their soldiers.

Many of the places these survivors of the war mourned still exist ,and Reconstruction mourning sites can still be visited.

Not all were for men who died. Some were for children. Clarence D. McKenzie (1849-1861) was only twelve when he had the misfortune to be the first Brooklynite killed in the Civil War. He left the city with Brooklyn’s Thirteenth Regiment as a drummer boy. According to Green Wood Cemetery where his remains were interred, “While camped in Annapolis, Maryland, he was accidentally killed in his tent by a stray bullet fired by his fellows at arms drilling nearby.” The statue is cast from zinc (“White Bronze”) and was recently restored by the cemetery at a cost of $15,000. The cemetery is in Brooklyn.

Clarence D. McKenzie Drummer Boy statue (Pat Young)

Nearby in the same cemetery is the New York City Civil War Memorial on Battle Hill. A magnificent work of art, veterans will assemble here this Memorial Day just as they did during Reconstruction and every year thereafter.

A few years ago, my wife Michele and I decided to visit Civil War-related graves and monuments at Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn to commemorate Memorial Day back in 2018. We stopped to see Henry Ward Beecher, Henry Halleck, and a number of other Civil War Era “permanent residents” of the famous cemetery. While we were driving towards the exit, Michele asked me to stop when she saw two graves with the same last name on them, one with a Union and one with a Confederate grave stone. She is a lot sharper at catching these than I am. The Union stones are rounded at the top and the Confederate stones are pointed.

We immediately wondered if these two men were brothers or cousins. Both from Maryland, both died during the Civil War. The two men were brothers, and they disagreed violently over which side to support when the war broke out. Clifton Prentiss joined the Union army, while his younger brother, William Prentiss, became a Confederate. They both survived the heaviest fighting of the war, but with just a few weeks left in the conflict, both were wounded at Petersburg.

Clifford was living in Baltimore when Fort Sumter was fired upon, and two days after war had broken out he volunteered as a private. He was steadily promoted until, by the time of his death, he was a brevet colonel of the 6th Maryland.

Both wounded brothers were taken to a hospital in Petersburg and afterward to Armory Square Hospital in Washington. There they were cared for by a volunteer nurse, Walt Whitman from Long Island who in civilian life lived just a couple of miles from Green Wood.

Headstones of brothers Clifton Kennedy Prentiss and William S. Prentiss (Pat Young)

In his work Specimen Days, Whitman recorded his experience with the two men:

May 28–9.—I STAID to-night a long time by the bedside of a new patient, a young Baltimorean… (2d Maryland, southern,) very feeble, right leg amputated, can’t sleep hardly at all—has taken a great deal of morphine, which, as usual, is costing more than it comes to. Evidently very intelligent and well bred—very affectionate—held on to my hand, and put it by his face, not willing to let me leave. As I was lingering, soothing him in his pain, he says to me suddenly, “I hardly think you know who I am—I don’t wish to impose upon you—I am a rebel soldier.” I said I did not know that, but it made no difference. Visiting him daily for about two weeks after that, while he lived, (death had mark’d him, and he was quite alone,) I loved him much, always kiss’d him… In an adjoining ward I found his brother, an officer of rank, a Union soldier, a brave and religious man, (Col. Clifton K. Prentiss, sixth Maryland infantry, Sixth corps, wounded in one of the engagements at Petersburgh, April 2—linger’d, suffer’d much, died in Brooklyn, Aug. 20, ’65.) It was in the same battle both were hit. One was a strong Unionist, the other Secesh; both fought on their respective sides, both badly wounded, and both brought together here after a separation of four years. Each died for his cause.

Over at the Catholic cemetery in Queens, Calvary Cemetery, the city had erected one of its earliest monuments on a piece of ground taken over by the city for burying Irish Catholic Union soldiers. This fifty foot monument was erected in 1866, and it deserves restoration.

Take time this weekend to pay your respects to those who suffered through the horrors of civil war. If you want more information on the sites here, just click on the links.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!