Monday, May 30, 2005


On Memorial Day

Memorial Day has its origins in the aftermath of the Civil War, but its origins offer lessons for a nation still at war today. Northerners and Southerners had established the custom of celebrating "Decoration Days" as early as 1865 and 1866. These were days for garlanding the graves of fallen soldiers, for picnics, parades and the dedication of monuments, for remembering loss. But early on, Memorial Day was useful for forgetting as well as for remembering, and its dual aspects need remembering today.

As historian David Blight shows in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, the earliest Memorial Days were concerned primarily with making sense of the unprecedented death and destruction that the Civil War had wrought. In those earliest celebrations, with memories of the war's wounds still fresh and open, Northerners and Southerners had different ways of making sense of their scarred battlefields, ruined cities, and over 600,000 deaths. For many Northerners, the death and destruction were made meaningful by the ideals that had been championed by the Union--loyalty, nationalism, and emancipation. Southerners had their own mythical ways of making meaning out of defeat, and former Confederates quickly assembled the major components of what would later be known as the Lost Cause ideology. In Southern Memorial Days, soldiers were portrayed as chivalrous defenders of their homes and families, and secession became coded as a valiant movement of resistance to Northern tyranny and aggression. In the immediate aftermath of the War, Memorial Day therefore served as a convenient index of how different memories of the war and its meanings could be. How Americans chose to make sense of the war, to themselves and to others, depended on how they viewed the war in the first place.

Blight also shows, however, that over time the rituals of Memorial Day became less sectional and divergent. In the 1870s, as resistance to radical Reconstruction became more organized and virulent in the South, and as commitment to Reconstruction became more disparate and lax in the North, Memorial Day increasingly became a ritual of reconciliation. Northerners and Southerners celebrated the day together, staging patriotic displays of national reunion. The Blue and the Gray were both praised for their valor and sacrifice, and both colors faded into red, white, and blue.

But that blurring of the lines between blue and gray went hand in hand with the retrenchment of color lines in the South, as state governments and paramilitary chapters of the KKK disfranchised black citizens and terrorized African American communities. From the perspective of the dwindling number of Radical Republicans in the North, the sentimental pathos of Memorial Day was dangerous because it covered the secessionism and racism of the South with a patina of respectability. Reconciliation became a code word for retreat from the promises of Reconstruction and racial egalitarianism.

Thus, in 1878, Frederick Douglass delivered a famous speech on Memorial Day admonishing vacillating Northern politicians that "there was a right side in the late war."
Fellow-citizens, [he said,] I am not here to fan the flame of sectional animosity, to revive old issues, or to stir up strife between races; but no candid man, looking at the political situation of the hour, can fail to see that we are still afflicted by the painful sequences both of slavery and of the late rebellion. In the spirit of the noble man [Lincoln] whose image now looks down upon us we should have "charity toward all, and malice toward none." In the language of our greatest soldier, twice honored with the Presidency of the nation, "Let us have peace." Yes, let us have peace, but let us have liberty, law, and justice first. Let us have the Constitution, with its thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments, fairly interpreted, faithfully executed, and cheerfully obeyed in the fullness of their spirit and the completeness of their letter. Men can do many things in this world, some easily and some with difficulty; but here are some things which men cannot do or be. When they are here they cannot be there. When the supreme law of the land is systematically set at naught; when humanity is insulted and the rights of the weak are trampled in the dust by a lawless power; when society is divided into two classes, as oppressed and oppressor, there is no power, and there can be no power, while the instincts of manhood remain as they are, which can provide solid peace.
In a section on the "Significance of Decoration Day," Douglass went on to criticize the false sense of sentimentality that had crept into the day's observance, reiterating the original Northern interpretation of the War as the right one:
Good, wise, and generous men at the North, in power and out of power, for whose good intentions and patriotism we must all have the highest respect, doubt the wisdom of observing this memorial day, and would have us forget and forgive, strew flowers alike and lovingly, on rebel and on loyal graves. This sentiment is noble and generous, worthy of all honor as such; but it is only a sentiment after all, and must submit to its own rational limitations. There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget, and while to-day we should have malice toward none, and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason. If the observance of this memorial day has any apology, office, or significance, it is derived from the moral character of the war, from the far-reaching, unchangeable, and eternal principles in dispute, and for which our sons and brothers encountered hardship, danger, and death. [Quotes taken from The Frederick Douglass Papers, volume 4.]
Douglass's speech is a rousing reminder that memorialization often, if not always, obscures right and wrong in a haze of sentimentality. He rightly stresses that it is noble and generous to remember deaths and to honor the selflessness of sacrifice. But he rejects the idea that such honoring of the dead requires being silent about matters of right and wrong. That false dichotomy still needs rejecting today. On this Memorial Day, with the United States still very much at war, there are many men and women, both in and out of power, who would have us forget the false promises and faulty premises on which the war in Iraq was fought, and who would have us overlook the fact that international law and the principles of humanity have been systematically "set at naught" in our detention centers. We need Douglass to remind us that patriotism and memorialization do not require us to forget these things. Rather, the noblest kind of patriotism will hold our nation to the high moral standards of "far-reaching, unchangeable, and eternal principles."

But if, on the one hand, we should remember Douglass' admonitions about Memorial Day, there is another sense in which we cannot--and perhaps should not--recover his confidence about the nobility and righteousness of war. For it does not follow from the fact that "there was a right side" in the Civil War that all wars have clearly delineated "sides." And one ironic consequence of postbellum Northern nationalism may be that it used the righteousness of the Union cause as a prima facie rationalization for subsequent American wars. Over time, most Americans have vindicated Douglass' judgment that "there was a right side" in the Civil War, but many have also adapted the emancipationist interpretation of the Civil War into a judgment that all American wars have a right side and wrong side, and that our side is always the right one. Thus, in the President's Memorial Day weekend radio address, we are told that "throughout our history, America has fought not to conquer but to liberate." The liberating narrative of the Civil War has, over time, become the narrative for all American wars.

Our problem, in other words, is not the same problem that Douglass addressed in 1878. Then, the problem was that many Americans were obscuring distinctions difference between right and wrong in favor of reconciliation. Now, the problem is more that Americans are too confident in the unquestioned rightness of our wars. We are trained, by the cultural legacy of arguments like Douglass's, to look suspiciously on any advocates for peace and reconciliation as agents of the "wrong side." Indeed, our Memorial Day observance has shed all the vestiges of reconciliation that marked the Decoration Days of the 1870s: we celebrate the day only to remember our own veterans, our own deaths, our own suffering and sacrifice and loss. We could stand to remember the deaths and suffering and loss of our enemies as well.

That is harder for us to do, perhaps, than it was for the veterans of the Civil War. Reconciliation between North and South was fueled by the common presumption that the Civil War was a conflict between brothers and between countrymen. That emphasis on the kinship between the two sides was already evident in Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God." Today, we are no longer possessed by the illusion that this is true even of all Americans. We read different Bibles, we read the same Bible differently, or we don't read the Bible at all. We don't pray to the same God, and we don't all pray. And if we cannot believe the myth of homogeneity even of ourselves as a nation, it is clearly even more difficult to posit a kinship between ourselves and our national enemies on the basis of shared culture, religion, language, or public life. As a result, if we are to have reconciliation and peace with our enemies today, it will not be on the basis of honoring a shared national compact or remembering shared national experiences. It will be, rather, on the basis of common humanity. To those whose country is the world, every war is a civil war, whether the two sides pray to the same God or not.

Collective Improvisation:
First rate post. I will be sending this one around.  

Posted by Streak

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/31/2005 09:06:00 AM : Permalink  

Very thoughtful post. I appreciate and admire your ethically-minded engagement with the past and present. 

Posted by Rob Nelson

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 6/01/2005 09:22:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for the kind comments. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 6/01/2005 09:58:00 PM : Permalink  

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