Reflections on Memorial Day and American Nationalism

Union and Confederate soldiers at the 50th anniversary reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913. Photo credit: U.S. Army Center of Military History,
A Union and Confederate soldier at the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913. Photo credit: U.S. Army Center of Military History,

The question of when, exactly, the United States became a truly unified nation has dominated the discussions of scholars seeking to explain the origins of American nationalism. Robert Penn Warren famously argued in 1961 that the United States could not be considered a nation until the blood-spilling of the American Civil War ended in 1865. The American Revolution, according to Warren, “did not create a nation except on paper . . . [The United States] became a nation, only with the Civil War.” Others argue, however, that a nation did in fact exist before the Civil War. Hans Kohn points out that pre-war tariff policies that favored the development of American commercial interests over European ones along with a national thirst for westward expansion demonstrate that the roots of American nationhood were established well before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

Regardless of when the United States became a unified country, almost everyone agrees that the Civil War altered Americans’ relationship to their nation, both politically and culturally. Even though bloody civil wars don’t necessarily bring about a stronger sense of nationalism in their aftermath, popular depictions of the Civil War in American history and memory have framed the deaths of 750,000 Americans as a necessary sacrifice for bringing together a young, fractious nation. The philosopher William James in 1910 argued that few Americans would change their nation’s history if given the opportunity: “Ask all our millions, north and south, whether they would vote now . . . to have our war for the Union expunged from history, and the record of a peaceful transition to the present substituted for that of its marches and battles, and probably hardly a handful of eccentrics would say yes.” Some contemporary historians define the nature of Civil War death in mythical terms. Charles P. Roland’s popular An American Iliad connects the American Civil War to the Greco-Trojan war of Greek mythology: “More than a century ago the American people engaged in a great sectional conflict that reenacted all of the heroism and sacrifice, all of the cruelty and horror, of the Greco-Trojan War. The Union victory . . . forever changed the course of American history and thereby of world history.”

These comments reflect a particular way of viewing the United States that conceives military action as the defining characteristic of American nationalism. Warfare, more than any other political, economic, social, or cultural factor, brings Americans together into an “imagined community” whose citizens are willing to die in battle to defend the rights and freedoms of fellow citizens thousands of miles away from their own homes.

The shocking death toll of the American Civil War demanded reflection, interpretation, and explanation from those who survived the war. To address these pressing demands of memory, Americans created new rituals they believed would maintain and strengthen the relationship between living and dead, what Union General John A. Logan described as a “solemn trust.” Although the practice of decorating graves has disputed origins, the call of Union veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in 1868 for all communities to decorate the graves of their local Civil War dead marked the official beginning of Memorial Day in the United States.

Memorial Day ritualizes the living’s “solemn trust” with the dead by annually reserving time on the American calendar for remembering and reflecting upon the memories of those who have died to preserve the United States and its freedoms. These rituals and observances are as much for us the living as they are for the dead. Each year we take time to justify to ourselves our belief that the dead did not die in vain and that we are a better nation because of their death. We also remind ourselves of the obligations we have to our fallen friends and loved ones and use Memorial Day to speak on behalf of those people. Indeed, the dead don’t have the chance to speak on Memorial Day; we speak for the dead and mold them to fit our own visions and beliefs.

The GAR played their own role in defining society’s memory of the war by annually reminding their audiences in Memorial Day speeches of the righteousness of preserving the Union (and in some speeches the righteousness of destroying slavery). For example, Indiana veteran George W. Spahr argued in his 1893 Memorial Day speech that all Americans should be “consoled by the fact that we are no longer a doubtful confederation of States; that we are no longer a compact of colonies existing at the will and pleasure of the parties to the combine.” Above all, Spahr believed this unified nationalist spirit was born through the efforts of men whose “self-sacrifice” provided a tangible example of patriotism and love of country.

Our nation’s dead deserve a place in our collective memory and a debt of thanks that will never be fully paid. Memorial Day helps us pay a part of that debt back and reminds us of our fellow citizens who are willing to die so that we may continue to live in comfort. But lurking under our “thank the servicemen and women” sentiments lie difficult questions that this nation must continually address about the nature of military action and nationalism.

According to the historian Susan-Mary Grant:

Americans . . . have been unwilling to concede that violence rather than voluntarism played a central role in their national development. Consequently, as far as the creation of the American nation is concerned, the subject of war is approached obliquely. The American way of war, in short, is almost always presented in quasi-mystical terms that support the national idea of freedom and equality for all . . . [and] downplay the extent and the implications of violence within the nation (189, 191).

In sum, Memorial Day is often framed as a day for remembering death, but less often is it a day for remembering the act of killing. George Spahr focused on the “self-sacrifice” of Union soldiers in his Memorial Day speech, but he omitted the fact that the federal government resorted to a forceful military draft in 1863 to maintain the Union war effort. He and countless veterans were also forced to deal with the memories of wartime killing on a daily basis. As historian Reid Mitchell points out, Julia Ward Howe’s song “Battle Hymn of the Republic” includes the lyric “let us die to make men free,” not “let us kill to make men free,” a convenient side stepping of what soldiers are actually tasked to do in the military. Any reflection on the nation’s dead requires us to analyze the nature of war itself and ask why our elected leaders sometimes choose to rely on warfare to ostensibly preserve and even enhance our American democracy.

We should do our absolute best to avoid warfare in the future. Memorial Day should be a day for reflection, thanks, and critical discussion about the state our nation, but not a day for unquestioningly glorifying the military. Mississippi Senator John Sharp Williams said as much to a group of Confederate veterans in his 1904 Memorial Day speech:

No matter how bright the uniform, how loud ‘the shouting of captains,’ how splendid the deeds of valor, how inspiring the clangor of fife and drums, there is nothing more disgusting, nothing more detestable, and nothing more in the history of the world has been so dangerous and destructive as the puerile thirst for military fame and the schoolboy love for ‘glory’ and a strenuous life.

Given our questionable military interventions since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and our seeming inability to care for veterans once they return home, let us hope that this nation’s future is not dominated by constant warfare and the deaths of our best and brightest citizens. We owe it to ourselves and those who have died in service of the United States to promote peace at all times.