By Gary Kaplan
Memorial Day is a legacy of the Civil War. Originally called Decoration Day, its precise origins are somewhat cloudy. The generally accepted inaugural celebration took place casually on June 3, 1861, when a group of ladies decorated the graves of confederate soldiers at a cemetery in Warrenton, Virginia. Local commemorative ceremonies were conducted throughout the South, as in the North. Such devotional acts had undoubtedly been practiced as far back as martial memory reaches.
The move toward a national holiday originated on March 3, 1868, with “General Order No.11, A Memorial Day Order,” issued by General John A. Logan, a Union veteran from Illinois. Logan was then the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union Army veterans’ organization. The (condensed) text of the Order is heavily weighted toward the Union side:
The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion. We are organized for the purpose of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion, by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes. Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. Let no vandalism, 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 (emphasis added).
Despite Logan’s commandeering of Arlington National Cemetery for his “Memorial Day” observance, the holiday continued to be called Decoration Day in local ceremonies. The whiplash periods of Reconstruction and Jim Crow did not conduce to North/South reconciliation. Confederate memorial ceremonies continued throughout the South. Georgia proclaimed an official Confederate Memorial Day in 1874. By 1916, ten southern states celebrated it on June 3, the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. In the North, Union ceremonies were held in Boalsburg, PA, Carbondale, IL, Waterloo, NY, and countless other towns. Only after World War I supplanted the Civil War in historical perspective was Decoration Day effectively recast as a national, rather than a sectional, observance. World War II elevated the holiday to true national apotheosis. The names Decoration Day and Memorial Day continued to ricochet from jurisdiction to jurisdiction until the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 settled on Memorial Day and made it a federal holiday to be observed, as of 1971, on the last Monday of May.
The use of war as a unifying national narrative is common, but internally contradictory. War has actually never been popular in the United States. Only 45% of the colonial population supported the War of Independence and Washington had constant difficulty cajoling the Continental Congress into providing funds to feed and equip his troops. Even the “good war,” World War II, was not popular before December 7, 1941. Despite the German occupation of most of Europe and widespread knowledge of Hitler’s atrocities, our isolationist Congress refused to get involved in a “foreign” war. Only the attack on Pearl Harbor jarred loose a declaration of war.
But history crystallizes into myth. World War II became the dominant myth of US history. General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, was president from 1953 to 1961, the definitive period of the American Imperium. The WWII myth still has the power to reactivate the unifying memory of the 1940s. It still can unite virtually all Americans, at least through the Baby Boom generation.
If World War II united Americans, the war in Viet Nam divided them, not just between generations but within generations. Viet Nam fractured the country along all its deep fault lines of race and class. World War II had taped over those fault lines for two decades. Viet Nam ripped the tape off and splintered the orthopedically stabilized body politic. Today’s cultural and political divisions along lines of class, race, income and education are the same as in the 60s and 70s, but deeper. The cultural divisions of those days have metastasized into the polarized cleavages of today.
In seeking reconciliation, it is customary to invoke the last paragraph of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered a month before the end of the war. This passage is ritually invoked as an anthem of forgiveness and unity. But its steely conditionality is revealed by the paragraphs before. Lincoln was not absolving the secessionists of guilt or responsibility; he was offering charity only after their utter defeat, after every drop of blood was paid by another.
Here are excerpts:
“On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. … Both parties deprecated war but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
…Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. … Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other.
…Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword …so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Only then did he turn his other cheek:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan; to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace… ”
America seems more divided now than at any time since the Civil War. The litany of intractable oppositions is endless and dispiriting. Our question this Memorial Day is: What vision of the right, what healing power, can bind up the nation’s wounds now?
Gary Kaplan is the executive director of JFYNetWorks
Other posts authored by Gary can be found here.
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