For nearly a century and a half—ever since President U. S. Grant declared “Let us have peace” in officially proclaiming a national day to commemorate all who had been killed in the Civil War—we the people of the United States have set aside a day to remember American soldiers, the best among us, who have fallen in battle. Originally called Decoration Day, the holiday was a sectional observance for several decades—the Southern states held a separate Confederate Memorial Day. Not until the Spanish-American War, when Northern and Southern soldiers together came under fire again for the first time in thirty years, did Memorial Day became a national day of remembrance. (This is a history that I have sketched in before. In a moving post at the Weekly Standard this morning, Leon and Amy Kass place the date of the expanded national holiday after World War I.)
American culture has become a victim culture, more comfortable with commemorating slaughter than heroism. The shift can be traced by comparing Allen Tate’s famous “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” first published in 1927, to Robert Lowell’s reply, “For the Union Dead,” read aloud at the Boston Arts Festival in 1960. A native of Kentucky who contributed to the Southern Agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand, Tate acts as a guide to a Confederate cemetery, where the “wind whirrs without recollection.” He urges the visitor:
Turn your eyes to the immoderate past,
Turn to the inscrutable infantry rising
Demons out of the earth—they will not last.
Stonewall, Stonewall, and the sunken fields of hemp,
Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, Bull Run.
Lost in that orient of the thick-and-fast
You will curse the setting sun.
Smothered by the cemetery’s silence, the visitors abruptly realize that the soldiers buried all around them have been reduced to a “verdurous anonymity.” Nothing remains but to “bow/ Our heads with commemorial woe. . . .” The martial tradition of the South, which continues to see it overrepresented among military recruits, leads to abashed reflection and respect.
Robert Lowell, by contrast—descended from Boston Brahmins and destined to become America’s favorite anti-war poet—is startled into poetry by Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s memorial in Boston Common to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a black unit that included two sons of Frederick Douglass. The monument to them, Lowell famously writes, “sticks like a fishbone/ in the city’s throat.” Reflecting upon a memorial to the regiment that led a bloody assault upon Battery Wagner, Lowell is angered by the state of race relations in America a century later; “the terrible injustice, in the past and the present, of the American treatment of the Negro is the greatest urgency to me as a man and as a writer,” he explained afterwards.
God knows that America’s treatment of its black citizens ought to stick in the throat of more than just Boston. The novelist Walker Percy once called it America’s original sin. But perhaps not every day on the American calendar should be victims’ day. Perhaps not today at least. Colonel Shaw and the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts were not victims, even if—as Lowell is careful to note—“Two months after marching through Boston,/ half the regiment was dead.” The men were heroes, and deserve to be remembered as heroes.
How can a generation fired by the urgency of injustice learn anew to bow its head in commemorial woe? It will have to relearn the language of memory and respect. A good place to start is the excellent website maintained by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War—the descendants, appropriately enough, of the Grand Army of the Republic—where a rich vein of essays, speeches, poems, and prayers can be found. Print out some of the prayers to take along with you to the veterans’ cemetery today.