Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What the History of Memorial Day Teaches About Honoring the War Dead


The New York Times, Editorial Observer article, "What the History of Memorial Day Teaches About Honoring the War Dead," by Adam Cohen, May 28, 2007:

Memorial Day got its start after the Civil War, when freed slaves and abolitionists gathered in Charleston, S.C., to honor Union soldiers who gave their lives to battle slavery. The holiday was so closely associated with the Union side, and with the fight for emancipation, that Southern states quickly established their own rival Confederate Memorial Day.

Over the next 50 years, though, Memorial Day changed. It became a tribute to the dead on both sides, and to the reunion of the North and the South after the war. This new holiday was more inclusive, and more useful to a forward-looking nation eager to put its differences behind it. But something important was lost: the recognition that the Civil War had been a moral battle to free black Americans from slavery.



In “Race and Reunion,” his masterful book about historical memory, David Blight, a professor at Yale, tells the wistful story of Memorial Day’s transformation — and what has been lost as a result. War commemorations, he makes clear, do not just pay tribute to the war dead. They also reflect a nation’s understanding of particular wars, and they are edited for political reasons. Memorial Day is a day not only of remembering, but also of selective forgetting — a point to keep in mind as the Iraq war moves uneasily into the history books.

Many of the early Memorial Day commemorations, Professor Blight notes, were like Charleston’s, paying tribute both to the fallen Union soldiers and to the emancipationist cause. At a ceremony in Maine in 1869, one fiery orator declared that “the black stain of slavery has been effaced from the bosom of this fair land by martyr blood.”


Less than a decade later in 1877 — when Reconstruction ended in the South — at New York City’s enormous Memorial Day celebration, there was much talk of union, and almost none of slavery or race. The New York Herald declared that “all the issues on which the war of rebellion was fought seem dead,” and noted approvingly that “American eyes have a characteristic tendency to look forward.”

There were dissenting voices. Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist leader, continued to insist that Memorial Day should be about the battle between “slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization.” But the drive to make the holiday a generic commemoration of the Civil War dead won out.


The new Memorial Day made it easier for Northern and Southern whites to come together, and it kept the focus where political and business leaders wanted it: on national progress. But it came at the expense of American blacks, whose status at the end of Reconstruction was precarious. If the Civil War was not a battle to determine whether a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could “long endure,” as Lincoln declared in the Gettysburg Address, but a mere regional dispute, there was no need to continue fighting for equal rights.

And increasingly the nation did not. When Woodrow Wilson spoke at Gettysburg on the 50th anniversary of the battle, in a Memorial Day-like ceremony, he avoided the subject of slavery, Professor Blight notes, and declared “the quarrel” between North and South “forgotten.” The ceremony was segregated, and a week later Wilson’s administration created separate white and black bathrooms in the Treasury Department. It would be another 50 years before the nation seriously took up the cause of racial equality again.


Since 1913, Memorial Day has changed even more. It has expanded — after World War I, it became a tribute to the dead of all the nation’s wars — while at the same time fading. Today, Memorial Day is little more than the start of summer, a time for barbecues and department store sales. Much would be gained, though, by going back to the holiday’s original meanings.

When Memorial Day began, the war dead were placed front and center. The holiday’s original name, Decoration Day, came from the day’s main activity: leaving flowers at cemeteries. Today, though, we are fighting a war in which great pains have been taken to hide the nearly 3,500 Americans who have died from sight. The Defense Department has banned the photographing of returning caskets, and the president [George W. Bush] refuses to attend soldiers’ funerals.


Memorial Day also began with the conviction that to properly honor the war dead, it is necessary to honestly contemplate the cause for which they fought. Today we are fighting a war sold on false pretenses, and the Bush administration stands by its false stories. Memorial Day’s history, and its devolution, demonstrates that the instinct to prettify war and create myths about it is hardly new.

But as the founders of the original Memorial Day understood, the only honorable way to remember those who have lost their lives is to commemorate them out in the open, and to insist on a true account. (source: The New York Times)

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