During my master’s thesis research on the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana I relied heavily on a Union Civil War veterans’ newspaper called The American Tribune. The paper was printed out of Indianapolis from roughly 1888 to 1906 and was edited by active members of the Indiana GAR during the postwar years. The paper is extremely hard to find on microfilm today and I was really lucky to have the Indiana State Library–one of the only places in the country where you can find it–within walking distance of my house to aid my research. Just for the fun of it I’ve been going back through some of my files and came across some interesting commentaries from the paper’s editorial page on the Confederate flag. Here are a few samples:
On May 29, 1890, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was unveiled in Richmond, Virginia, along what is now called “Monument Avenue.” When reports suggested that Confederate flags were waved during the ceremonies, the John A. Logan Post No. 199 of the Indiana GAR issued an angry resolution condemning these actions as “disloyal and treasonable.” The Tribune gleefully republished the Logan Post’s resolution in full on June 27:
WHEREAS: The rebel flag was unfurled and displayed on housetops and in line of march, and used for the purposes of decorating in remembrance of the same principles that it represented during the years of 1861 to 1865, and
WHEREAS, The principles taught the rising generation by such acts are as wrong as that principle taught by anarchists and communists in carrying the red flag, which this government forbids. Therefore be it
RESOLVED, That we heartily endorse the sentiment of Gen [Daniel] Sickles on last Memorial Day unmoved by any rancor or spirit of hatred, God forbid, but we say as Union soldiers and the love that we bear for the stars and stripes that there is but one flag for the Americans, the flag of Bunker Hill, of Saratoga, of Yorktown, of Lundy’s Lane, of New Orleans, the flag of Washington, Scott, Perry, Jackson, Lincoln, Hancock, Grant, Hooker, and the flag carried victorious by Billy Sherman to the sea. The only flag that represents the right, and in charity we will not forget the difference between right and wrong.
RESOLVED, That in this country there is but one flag which represents the fundamental principles of a free government known and acknowledged by all nations of the earth, and while we respect the pride that animates the hearts of ex-confederate soldiers in historic valor displayed on many battlefields of the war and the sentiment which endears them to each other, and keeps alive in their memories the many scenes of hardships which they shared together, we sincerely condemn any attempt to resurrect from the buried past the emblem which represents a bad and lost cause.
RESOLVED, That the stars and stripes represent loyalty and the stars and bars represent treason, the same to-day as they did from ’61 to ’65, and we deem it the duty of the authorities at Washington, irrespective of political parties, to forbid the display of the stars and bars on any occasion, and this we do in memory of those who so heroically gave their lives that the Nation might live.
From an editorial entitled “Our Flag is There” on January 7, 1892:
When Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant at Appomattox, the latter would not accept Gen. Lee’s sword, and he included within that surrender a provision that all the Rebel officers should retain their side-arms. That courtesy of Gen. Grant expressed exactly the feeling of the great generous heart of the North toward the defeated and conquered South. Southern poets have written ballads and Southern women have sung of the sword of Robert Lee. This is all as it should be. But when Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant there was no provision made that the flag of slavery and secession should ever be retained, either as a souvenir or standard. It represented something that cost this country a million of men and many millions of money, and at Appomattox its bloody folds should have been furled forever. War relic or no war relic, it should never float over American soil.
A month later the paper lamented how many Northerners (and Democrats in particular) embraced what the paper called a “forgive and forget” sentiment that accepted the continued flying of the Confederate flag (“Still Pandering to Rebels,” February 4, 1892):
The Northern Dough-faces and the “forgive and forget” sentimentalists are largely responsible for the manner in which the “relics of the lost cause” are nursing emblems of their treason and are still laboring to make the same respectable. In poor old Missouri they have societies called “Daughters of the Confederacy” whose invitations to their balls and receptions have a Confederate flag printed in colors on one corner; and the principal of the leading military school in that State [Alexander Frederick Fleet, Sr. of the Missouri Military Academy]…advertises the advantages of his school with the picture of a late major-general of the Rebel army in the uniform of a rebel, and this officer was a graduate of West Point, resigned from U.S. Army in 1861 and fought for the Confederacy.
This sort of thing is becoming too common and the President should call a halt and order the officer now on duty there to his regiment, and require the arms to be turned over to the ordnance officer at Jefferson Barracks. It is high time there was a law forbidding the Government of the United States from furnishing teachers’ ordnance, or in any way aiding any institution of learning which seeks to perpetuate the principles of or honor the so-called Confederate Government.
All these comments make you wonder what these guys would think about our debate over the Confederate flag 120 years later.
New York Times Columnist Charles M. Blow published a piece today on Memorial Day that I found simultaneously interesting yet slightly mistaken. He does correctly argue that a large majority of U.S. Congress members and Presidential candidates come from non-military backgrounds. Whereas 80 percent of lawmakers in 1977 had prior military service, only 18 percent have that same experience today. This discrepancy in turn raises questions about who does and who does not serve in today’s military: some families have generations of family members who serve their career in the military while the rich elites (including our elected leaders) avoid military service. “The public in general and the elected officials who have sanctioned and sustained our wars,” argues Blow, “have a diminishing personal stake on the battlefields.”
I think these points are valid, but I believe the problems in Blow’s op-ed are twofold. Both emerge with his assertion that “we [today] are drifting away from this tradition of honoring sacrifice [on Memorial Day].”
One issue with this claim is that Blow doesn’t tell us how Americans are drifting away from this supposed tradition of honoring our war dead on Memorial Day. If that claim is made simply because a small percentage of the population has served in the military, then I find that argument unconvincing. Surely one does not need to serve in the military to understand death and loss through military service. Just ask a non-military friend or family member of someone who’s died in the line of service over the past fifty years for perspective.
Secondly, arguing that there was a time in U.S. history–indeed, a tradition–in which Memorial Day was observed in a pure form without politics and wholly in the interest of honoring the war dead is naive and ahistorical. Memorial Day has always been a politically charged holiday subject to abuse by veterans and non-veterans alike who use the dead to promote their own agendas. Countless speakers have historically used Memorial Day and the war dead to advocate for anything from increased military spending to public education funding to Indy Car racing to baseball games to the ubiquitous “Memorial Day Weekend” sale of everything in between. Hell, even the political parties who are most responsible for our involvement in so many deadly conflicts exploit the war dead to sell cheap apparel to the party faithful at a discounted price during Memorial Day weekend.
The Gospel of Consumerism provides the fuel for the capitalist engine that gives life to Memorial Day weekend, and it has always been that way. Blow’s concerns today are not new: not long after General John Logan and the Grand Army of the Republic called for the decoration of Union solider graves throughout the U.S., Civil War veterans begin complaining about businesses looking to exploit the day for sport, vice, and capital. Indiana Civil War veteran and GAR member Ivan Walker complained in 1891 that the rest of society was already forgetting about its Civil War dead. “When Memorial Day was instituted by the Grand Army of the Republic it was not intended that it should be made a day of feasting, festivals, and fairs, nor that it should be given over to base ball and other sports, but it was set apart as a day sacred to the memory of our heroic dead.” Another Hoosier veteran, George W. Grubbs, asserted in 1904 that “The increasing perversion of Memorial Day in many places to mere pleasure, amusement, and frivolity, is a national shame. The apathy which countenances it is a sign of the decline of national gratitude and conscience. The time and hour is now to resolve that Memorial Day shall be held sacred to the high purpose of its institutions.”
These veterans would be sorely disappointed when the Indianapolis 500 began taking place on an annual basis on Memorial Day starting in 1911. Meanwhile, newspapers like the Indianapolis Star praised the 500 as a patriotic expression of gratitude to the Civil War dead while celebrating their own technologically advanced society and the blessings of “progress.” Memorial Day in Indianapolis and the rest of the country by the turn of the 20th century no longer focused on the past so much as it looked forward to the potential benefits of a Memorial Day marked by robust commercial activity.
It seems to me, then, that while the low number of Americans who actually serve in our U.S. military certainly contributes to a general apathy about the meaning of Memorial Day, I’d suggest that much of that apathy lies in our desire to turn history into a commodity for profit and progress – a happy story that opens up our wallets. As Robert Penn Warren argued in 1961 about the meaning of the Civil War in popular memory, “We are right to see power, prestige, and confidence as conditioned by the Civil War. But it is a very easy step to regard the War, therefore, as a jolly piece of luck only slightly disguised, part of our divinely instituted success story, and to think, in some shadowy corner of the mind, of the dead at Gettysburg as a small price to pay for the development of a really satisfactory and cheap compact car with decent pick-up and roading capability” (49). Warren’s concerns are applicable to our views towards Memorial Day today.
Who do we honor and what do we prioritize on Memorial Day?
150 years ago today on April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant and the United States military at Appomattox. Today does not mark the anniversary of the official end of the Civil War, as there were several other Confederate armies still in the field at that time, but the end of General Lee’s war signified the beginning of the Confederate States of America’s eventual demise.
Fifty years after the Appomattox Surrender an Indiana veteran put pen to paper and wrote a moving poem about the meaning of the Civil War and how the future of republican governance could have been imperiled had Grant surrendered to Lee. “Corporal” Bob Patterson was a veteran of the 19th and 20th Indiana Infantry Regiments and an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana after the war. He served as the Indiana GAR’s Senior Vice-Commander in 1895-1896 and dedicated this 1915 poem to his friend and fellow Indiana veteran Adelbert B. Crampton. I found this poem during my master’s thesis research on the Indiana GAR and publish it in full here.
On the great April day when the weak lines of gray
Were confronted by blue in battle array;
When the heart of the nation was throbbing with pain
For its dead and its dying, and the blood of its slain
Was flowing in crimson to the home and the hearth,
And vigils were kept by the nations of earth,
Could Sages then see what the future would be
When the great Grant and Lee met in the shade of the tree
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?
So steadfast and true when these strong lines of blue
Stood in solid phalanx and resplendent review
Confronting the gray, and in matchless might
Was forcing the struggle for freedom and right,
When the hope of the nation in the balance lay
And hearts beat fast ‘neath the blue and gray;
Could prophets then see what the future would be
As these leaders strove the master to be
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?
In that hour sublime could we know of the time
When slavery would blacken the brightest clime?
Could we tell of the flow of the nation’s blood
In the oncoming rush of secession’s red flood–
Of our own country unknown and unworthy to own
By subject or serf or monarch or throne?
Could philosophers see what the future would be
For the flag of the free on the land and the sea
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?
O, the evils entailed had that moment failed
And the flag of the Union at Appomattox trailed!
If the shafts of chivalry had shattered the shield
Of the great Union chief on this hallowed field
And that proud Southern son had there made the terms
To emplant the Union with soul-eating germs,
God could only then see what the future would be
For the land of the free and the home of the brave
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?
But the victory then sealed on that hallowed field
And the halo of glory that moment revealed
As the flag of the bold was seen to unfold
With the plaudits of nations in the gaze of the world;
Be it in shelter of house or shade of a tree;
The sages, prophets and philosophers could see
The guards of the Nation were there in avant
When angels in chorus all joined in the chant
While Robert E. Lee made surrender to Grant.
Not too long ago I finished reading Brian Matthew Jordan’s recent publication about Union Civil War veterans, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War. The book was a real treat for me, thoroughly researched and written in a stylish prose that expert and layperson alike could understand. There have been many fine Civil War veterans’ studies over the past five years and this one definitely competes with the best of them. I highly recommend it to those interested in Civil War veterans or just veteran culture in general.
Scholars like David Blight, John Neff, Stuart McConnell, Nina Silber, and others have largely focused their studies on lingering debates about Civil War memory between Union veterans and between Union and Confederate veterans. These studies are crucial to our understanding of the ways Civil War veterans dealt with, understood, and communicated their interpretation of the Civil War’s meaning to each other and the rest of society. Yet these studies–partly out of necessity–look to the words and deeds of veterans who established themselves as political and cultural elites in the years after the war. Contemporary discussion about Civil War veterans, therefore, revolves around things like monuments, memorials, commemorative holidays, and school textbook wars that are largely shaped by the perspectives of veterans who had the finances, prestige, platform, and inclination to take the lead in shaping the public memories of the war.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach. I myself have contributed to this discussion and have an article coming out later this year on the Grand Army of the Republic and Civil War memory in Indiana. Jordan, however, throws new light on our understanding of Civil War veterans by focusing less on the memory battles of the postwar years and more on the daily, lived experience of being a veteran in a rapidly changing society that sought healing, reconciliation, and closing from the Civil War. More so than any other book I’ve read on these topics, Jordan shows us how the mental and physical scars of battle wreaked havoc on many veterans stuck in a mental time void between the horrors of the past and the pains of the present. Equally important, Jordan demonstrates that not all Union veterans were necessarily interested in the pomp and circumstance of Grand Army of the Republic parades, writing memoirs about their experiences in the war, or contributing money to erect a monument at a Civil War battlefield.
Gary Gallagher wrote a largely positive review of Marching Home for the Washington Post, but he suggests that the book “raises questions regarding context and proportion.” To wit:
How many of the 1.8 million veterans floundered and felt estranged from the nation they saved? How many carried psychological and physical scars that markedly affected their ability to function productively? Were civilians so widely insensitive? Soldiers who fought in battles undoubtedly retained hard memories, but most got on with their lives and fit well into postwar society . . .
Perhaps most important, evidence of respect for Union veterans abounds. Far from being quick to forget what soldiers had done, ordinary Americans found ways to acknowledge it. Decoration Day (now Memorial Day), which began in 1868, featured speeches, parades and other events honoring the dead and veterans. Military service during the war translated into political success, at every level, for decades after Appomattox (five of the six men elected president between 1868 and 1900 had fought in the Union army). States, counties and municipalities raised monuments to Union soldiers — many with inscriptions similar to the one in Pasadena, Calif., dedicated in 1906: “Erected By The Citizens Of Pasadena To Perpetuate The Memory Of The Defenders Of The Union ’61 to ’65.”
I think Gallagher is being a bit unfair here. Of course there’s no doubt that veterans had political success or that many had a positive transition back into postwar society. But expressing acknowledgement of veterans through monuments or commemorative holidays comes with its own political baggage. Some veterans suffering from debilitating pain and living on a meager pension may have viewed the use of public and private funds for monuments as an extravagance better spent on providing care to living veterans. As my future article will show, younger generations had no qualms about re-purposing Decoration Day from its original intent (decorating soldier graves and quietly reflecting on the meaning of the Civil War) in favor of leisurely pursuits like attending sporting events, gambling, drinking, and partying that had nothing to do with acknowledging the efforts of Union war veterans. Moreover, there were plenty of civilians who simultaneously admired veterans who gained political and social prominence in the postwar years and looked down with contempt at veterans who struggled to find gainful employment, grappled with alcoholism, or begged for a pension to supplant their lingering disability. As Jordan argues in Marching Home, these particular veterans were often viewed as something less then men and were instead labeled as government dependents unwilling and unable to get over the war or take care of themselves and their families.
Gallagher might be right that the stories Jordan explores don’t necessarily account for the mass of Union veterans’ transitions to postwar society, but his study asserts that neither can we accept the arguments of historians like Stuart McConnell who have argued that Civil War veterans had a “relatively easy transition” to postwar society (21).
I’m pleased to pass along to readers some good news on the writing/publishing front. Yesterday I received word from the folks at the Indiana Magazine of History that they have accepted an article manuscript I submitted to them last summer. It took years of research, writing, and seemingly endless edits and revisions to get to this point, but I feel great about the final product, which will be published in either late 2015 or early 2016.
The article analyzes the Grand Army of the Republic’s creation of Memorial Day after the Civil War and the ways the holiday’s meaning and purpose changed over time. More specifically I explore an untold story about the Indiana GAR and their vehement opposition to the annual Indianapolis 500 automobile race, which also took place on Memorial Day starting in 1911. I don’t want to give away much else at this point, but there are a lot of questions I raise about the relationship between Union veterans and the rest of civil society and whether or not younger generations have the right to mold and shape traditional commemorative holidays for their own purposes.
This article will be a fine conclusion of my studies on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana. I wrote a master’s thesis, presented several papers at conferences, and will now have two journal articles published about these guys. I’ve loved just about every minute of it, but it’s definitely time to start researching that next topic. I don’t have any concrete ideas for topics or a time table for getting the next project done, but I’m keeping my eyes peeled for new opportunities to contribute my perspective and scholarship.
Stay tuned for updates about this journal article later this year.
The folks at IUPUI ScholarWorks have finally digitized my master’s thesis on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic, which was completed back in May of this year. The IUPUI University Library runs ScholarWorks and strongly advocates open access policies that allow free public access to scholarship created by IUPUI graduate students. I heartily endorse these policies because I find the idea of dedicating two years of your life to a project that merely leads to a hardback copy of your thesis on the history department’s dusty bookshelf to be absurd.
If you’d like to view and/or download a PDF copy of the thesis, you may do so free of charge by clicking on the link here.
I am pleased to announce the official publication of my first scholarly journal article. The article–which is entitled “One Nation, One Flag, One Language: The Grand Army of the Republic and the Patriotic Instruction Movement in Indiana”–is included in the December 2014 issue (Volume 1, issue 6) of The Americanist Independent, an online academic journal and multimedia website run by California-based independent historian Keith Harris. Keith is an expert in Civil War history, memory, and veteran culture whose first book was recently published by Louisiana State University Press, so it’s quite an honor to have him publish my own scholarship on the Hoosier Civil War veterans who composed the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana.
One great thing about The Americanist Independent is that the journal is open access, which means that you can download my article and tons of other great scholarship for FREE. Simply follow this link to register as a user of The Americanist Independent website and boom! It’s all yours.
This journal article is an outgrowth of the third chapter of my Master’s thesis on the Indiana GAR. I spent a considerable amount of time during the research process going through the official records of the Indiana GAR’s annual meetings, which include a wide variety of speeches from state leadership outlining goals, objectives, and political statements for the rest of the organization’s membership. Starting with the meetings during the mid-1880s and 1890s, I noticed that Indiana GAR leaders spent an increasing amount of time complaining about the types of textbooks Hoosier schoolchildren used in their history classrooms and their allegedly “poor” understanding of Civil War history. The organization established an official leader of “Patriotic Instruction” in 1907 who traveled the state giving presentations about the Civil War and encouraging patriotic sentiments in young schoolchildren. The Indiana GAR eventually promoted three interrelated goals for encouraging patriotism in Indiana public schools: the implementation of history textbooks with a “correct” interpretation of Civil War history, the raising of American flags and hosting of lavish patriotic ceremonies, and a comprehensive “military instruction” program that included firearms training and military drill for all boys.
Be sure to download my article to learn more.
The weather and clocks are changing, but the blogging continues here at Exploring the Past. Here are a few good reads and some personal notes.
- Flawed commemoration in Britain: The Tower of London is currently surrounded by red ceramic poppies in commemoration of British soldiers who died during World War I. Jonathan Jones writes a scathing and largely accurate (in my opinion) criticism of this commemoration, arguing that such a commemoration needs to highlight the horrors of war and the ways WWI was tragic to all of Europe, not just Britain.
- The History Manifesto: Historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage have recently published a new book, The History Manifesto. Guldi and Armitage argue that “the spectre of the short term” clouds our society and government policy. “Almost every aspect of human life is plotted and judged, packaged and paid for, on time-scales of a few months or years” (1), according to Guldi and Armitage. This method of thinking also dominates the historical enterprise, where historians are told to specialize in historic eras or events that range between four and forty years, privileging the small picture instead of the big one. They argue that historians should aim to think more about the long term and the ways history changes over hundreds of years. Moreover, Guldi and Armitage argue that historians should involve themselves in public policy. The History Manifesto is open access and freely available for PDF download here.
- Do Professors need to use digital technology in the classroom?: Professor and columnist Rebecca Schuman says ‘no.’
- The Specter of Gettysburg: Kevin Lavery, a student at Gettysburg College, writes a sharp criticism of so-called “historic” ghost tours in and around the Gettysburg battlefield, with some pushback from readers in the comment section. A very thought-provoking read.
- Commemorating veterans at sporting events: Acknowledgements for United States veterans’ were ubiquitous during this year’s World Series. Some veterans are questioning the motivations behind these tributes and wondering if they’re really attempts to silence dissent against U.S. foreign policy.
- Slavery in America – Back in the headlines: “People think they know everything about slavery in the United States, but they don’t.”
- Two of the chapters from my Master’s thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, are currently under review for possible publication in scholarly journals. One of these chapters was revised into an article during the spring semester and submitted for review back in August. The blind peer-reviewers just got back to me a few days ago with mostly positive comments but also a few revisions to make the article better. The other chapter was revised throughout the summer and was submitted a couple weeks ago, so I’m still waiting for feedback on that one. I’ll have more info on these articles soon. Stay tuned.
- I am doing a professional book review for the Society for U.S. Intellectual History that will be posted early next year if all goes according to plan. I’ll be reviewing Jeffrey Trask’s 2013 publication Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era.
- I have an essay on Oscar Taveras, Stan Musial, and public commemoration in sports that is slated for publication on Sport in American History on November 10. This is my first essay for SAH and I’m really excited for readers to check it out.
Some brief notes on upcoming publications and other personal news.
- As you can see above, my Master’s thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana is fresh off the bindery and now in hardback form. I took a short trip to Indianapolis during the Fourth of July weekend to pick up hard copies for the IUPUI history department, my thesis chair, my parents, and myself. The IUPUI University Library has a PDF copy of the Master’s thesis that will soon be published digitally for the entire world through their online open access repository, IUPUIScholarWorks. The Library hasn’t posted my thesis yet and I can’t tell you why, but it’s my hope that it’s going to go up soon. Due to copyright restrictions I can’t share my thesis publicly on this website, but if you’re anxious to get your hands on a digital copy please leave a note in the comments section or send me an email and I’ll get you a copy as soon as I get the green light to do so.
- My first magazine article has just been published by History is Now, an online history magazine based out of London, UK. The article is about 2,500 words long and addresses sectional conflicts in the naming of the American Civil War. A nice essay by Chandra Manning and Adam Rothman about naming the war appeared in the New York Times in August 2013 and was helpful for me as I put together this essay, but I go beyond their arguments by analyzing the United Confederate Veterans’ efforts to rename the war as the “War Between the States” and suggesting that the term “Civil War” grew out of the Civil War Centennial of 1961-1965. Christian Smith, an editor at History is Now, contacted me back in January about doing a piece for the magazine. He and his team gave me a lot of flexibility and time in picking a topic to write about, and I thank them profusely for giving me a chance to get published (and thanks to Andrew Joseph Pegoda for providing edits and comments during the draft phase). Readers who follow the link above will note that History is Now is designed for smartphones and iPads and that you have an opportunity to take advantage of a two-month free trial of the magazine before subscribing to anything (which means you can get the summer issue, including my article, for free). If you do not have smartphone technology, however, once again feel free to contact me via the comments section or email and I will work on getting you a different copy of the essay.
- Even though memories of the National Council on Public History’s 2014 Annual Meeting in Monterey, California, are still fresh in my mind, today was the deadline for panel submissions for the 2015 Annual Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. I am working with two separate groups on submitting proposals for the conference and will be sure to post updates here once I know whether or not these proposals have been approved.
- Readers will note that I recently wrote an essay about taking a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) about material culture through Harvard EdX. Unfortunately those plans fell through within the first week of class following my Grandfather’s placement in the hospital on June 4 and his eventual passing on June 12. The MOOC fell by the wayside pretty quickly at that point and I lost interest in pursuing it any further. Perhaps I will take another MOOC in the future, but for now I hold the distinction of being just like the vast majority of students who take a MOOC: a dropout.
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.