It’s Memorial Day weekend. That’s not just about barbecues and beaches and boats and traffic tie-ups. It’s a holiday in which we are all invited to reflect on the people who died in the service of their country. Remember that Veterans day in November is to remember and thank all who served in the military. Memorial Day is to remember those who did not make it back.
I’ve told before a story which illustrates this. In a large and old church, there was a wall with a lot of names on it, names of the church members who served in the military but did not return. The pastor was passing by this wall one morning just before Sunday services and he saw little 12-year-old Johnny looking at the wall, his eyes big as saucers. Johnny asked the pastor, “who are all these people?” The pastor replied, “why Johnny, these are all the members of this church who died in the service.” The little boy said through trembling lips, “which service: the 9:00 or the 11:00?”
A humorous story, but it has a serious point. We use the same word for our gatherings on Sunday morning to worship the holy as we do the acts of military people in defending the country. In each case, the individual is called out of his or her narrow selfish pursuits to perform service, to do something for the wider community. In the case of those who fight wars, what is at stake in their service may be the very survival of the country, and what is at risk is their personal survival.
Memorial Day started soon after the American Civil War. One of the earliest instances of decoration of graves of Civil War dead occurred anly weeks after that war stopped, in my adopted home town of Charleston, where the newly freed slaves decorated the graves of the Union Soldiers who had succeeded in obtaining their freedom, out of gratitude. That was one instance.
More generally, women led the way in decorating graves of the war dead in the spring. In Columbus, MS in 1866, a newspaper article about such a decoration noted that the women scattered flowers on the graves of Union as well as Confederate dead, despite the continuing rancor of the war. This inspired a judge in upstate New York named Francis Miller Finch to compose on ode called “The Blue and the Gray.” Here are a couple of verses:
“BY the flow of the inland river,
Whence the fleets of iron have fled,
Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,
Asleep are the ranks of the dead;—
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment day;—
Under the one, the Blue;
Under the other, the Gray.
These in the robings of glory,
Those in the gloom of defeat,
All with the battle-blood gory,
In the dusk of eternity meet;—
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment day;—
Under the laurel, the Blue;
Under the willow, the Gray.”
The last verse is:
No more shall the war-cry sever,
Or the winding rivers be red;
They banish our anger forever
When they laurel the graves of our dead!
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment day;—
Love and tears for the Blue,
Tears and love for the Gray.”
Now I am a southerner, and I had ancestors who owned slaves, I had one ancestor that I know fought for the Confederacy, and my father was named for a Confederate general, but all my life I have had little sympathy for the Confederacy as a cause. My hero from the Civil War era was James Louis Petigru, a lawyer who was a staunch Unionist. When the secession convention was being held, he strode into it and demanded to be heard. Because of his stature, they had to let him speak, and he gave a long impassioned oration which ended with the sentence, “South Carolina is too small to be a Republic and too large to be a lunatic asylum.”
Those who supported secession were willing to break up the nation in order to preserve the peculiar instituion of slavery which violated the values of equality and liberty which the nation had declared at its founding. There were plenty of Confederate apologists and romantic devotees of the Lost Cause around when I was growing up, but I never thought they made sense. My contemporary heroes were the people fighting for civil rights, though this set me at odds with my parents’ generation.
So my moral sympathies are all with the Union and I am far enough removed from that war in time to have no memories of anyone connected with our family who may have been involved in it. Yet the question of mourning the death of lost ancestors is separate from sympathy for their cause.
Nearly 500,000 men died in the Civil War, about two per cent of the population. The South took generations to recover. When you read a book about the conflict or see a documentary, you are almost overwhelmed with sadness at the scope of the suffering throughout the country.
In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln urged his listeners to take from the sacrifice of the Union dead the resolve to see that they did not die in vain. Insofar as slavery as a formal, legal institution was abolished as a direct result of the Union’s military victory in that war, the resolution is fulfilled: those dead did not die in vain, they died in order to bring to fruition a dream of abolition. The fact that the forces of white supremacy regained so much of their oppressive regime a generation after the Civil War is a depressing fact of our history, but does not alter that the war not only succeeded at abolishing slavery formally, but held the Union together in the process.
That’s the cause, but what about those who fought for the cause. How are we supposed to feel about those who fought on the Confederate side? Do we call them traitors? It’s a little historically inaccurate to do that, because it wasn’t quite the same country after the Civil War as it was before. The legal result of the civil war was to bind the states much closer together. For many Southerners at the war’s outset, their loyalty to the state counted for more than their loyalty to the nation. Of course, what they were actually defending was not only the right of thier state to be free from the federal government telling it what to do but the right of the white segment of society to continue holding the black segment in total oppression.
Those were the political factors surrounding whether a southerner fought for the Confederacy, but just as important were cultural factors. The South considered itself to be bound by codes of honor.
Honor is a tricky thing. I saw the musical Hamilton last winter, and I hadn’t realized before I saw it that not only was Alexander Hamilton, one of the brightest minds among the Founding Fathers, killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, but three years earlier, Hamilton’s son was killed in a duel. Both duels arose from political disputes, which were construed as attacks on someone’s honor.
After the Hamilton-Burr duel in 1804, dueling died out of favor in the North, but it remained a widespread practice in the south, which had a stronger culture of honor. So a Southern boy might enlist in the Confederate military because he supported slavery or really didn’t like the federal government telling his state what to do, but it might also be that everyone else was enlisting and it would be dishonorable not to fight for one’s homeland.
“Honor” and “honesty” both begin with the same syllable, but sometimes they seem almost to be opposite concepts. A trial lawyer is concerned with techniques for getting out the truth. And the truth can seem to be a simple matter of just telling what happened, like re-running a video. But psychologists say that is not how memory works. When we are questioned about something from our history, we start rummaging around in memory, but for most of us, the question of what happened is intertwined with the question of what should have happened. What would an honorable person have done in this situation? We construct a narrative which will make us look good.
When the lawyer realizes that a witness is mostly relating what the witness thinks will sound honorable rather than what the witness’s memory tells him actually happened, there is an opening for a skilled cross-examiner to show that the witness is lying. Honor and honesty are often opposite values in real life.
Thus the Confederate apologetic culture in which I grew up insisted that the Confederate soldiers were honorable men and that the Civil War was about state’s rights, not slavery. That theory attempts to preserve honor at the expense of truth, for the written record of the secession conventions in each state, and the secession resolutions, and a certain speech by the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens just after most states had seceded, all make clear that those states seceded to preserve slavery and that slavery was based on the inherent inferiority of African Americans. This last point, incidentally, had just been solidified into law in the Dred Scott decision three years earlier.
The problem with an ethic based on honor is that it is easy to get oneself backed into a corner where deadly force is the only way out. The duel that killed Alexander Hamilton was not the first that he had fought, but the tenth. In the run-up to the Civil War, the seceding states allowed themselves to get into a position where they were defending their honor with force and at the expense of the unity of the country. After the fighting was over, the only way to recapture some shred of that honor was to lie about what the war had been about. And Confederate apologists are still doing that a hundred and fifty years after the war.
This brings us to the Martha’s Vineyard flap. Charles Strahan, a former Confederate soldier, found his way to the Vineyard after the war and started a successful newspaper. He was initially not allowed to join organizations of Union veterans. So to gain acceptance, he foots most of the bill to put up a big statue of a Union soldier. That’s an act of generosity, and you can see why the Oak Bluffs public would support it. But then there is this plaque that he put on it, saying “the chasm is closed; In memory of the restored Union this tablet is dedicated by the Union veterans of the Civil War and patriotic citizens of Martha’s Vineyard in honor of the Confederate soldiers.”
Forgiveness is a grand thing. Reconciliation after a bitter dispute can be holy. But forgiveness has to start with an acknowledgment by the wrongdoer that what he did was wrong. The problem with this plaque is that it papers over the great moral issue of the Civil War. That was what led the select board of Oak Bluffs unanimously to order the removal of the plaque, not the statue. It was the right thing.
Truth is often a casualty in war, despite our glorious First Amendment and investigative journalism. The only famous modern person I am related to is the late Gen. William Westmoreland, who was commander of the U.S. Forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. Before his Vietnam tour, he had been Commandant of West Point, and afterwards ran unsuccessfully for Governor of South Carolina.
In the early 1980s, Westmoreland was featured unfavorably in a report on the CBS program Sixty Minutes. Citing several of Westmoreland’s subordinates, the thrust of the story was that during the escalation of American involvement in the war in the Johnson era, the high command had manipulated estimates of enemy forces and body counts to make it appear that the enemy was weaker than it actually was. The escalation of the war, in other words, had been sold to the civilian leadership and the American people on the basis of false figures.
General Westmoreland saw this as a stain on his honor and sued CBS and Mike Wallace. Our family law firm advised him against the suit, but there was a right-wing public interest firm which was willing to take the case for free. However, the case proceeded to trial, and Westmoreland’s subordinates stuck to the story they had told on the CBS report, that the numbers actually had been manipulated to support a political consideration. Faced with a strong likelihood that the jury would find that the CBS report was true, Westmoreland’s lawyers settled the case with each side bearing its own costs and no apology. Some shred of the General’s honor had been preserved, but millions of dollars of legal work had been wasted.
Honor is an ancient justification for war. Nature has endowed us, as many of our animal cousins, with a set of reflexes called the flight-or-fight response. Animals invoke this system when they perceive real danger. Humans also switch it on when the danger is symbolic, when the national flag is burned or the dominos are about to fall or some dictator far across the sea is thought to have weapons of mass destruction. The eight-year Trojan War was fought to avenge the dishonor of Menelaus’s wife leaving him for Paris. The Crusades were fought to wrest the Holy Land from the Muslims.
This Memorial Day, the thing I find most hard to honor is honor itself. I am not a pacifist. From my historical perspective, the American Revolution appears to have done more good than harm, the horrible bloodshed of the Civil War is redeemed by the preservation of the union and inching us closer to living out the ideals on which the nation was founded, and the Second World War effectively checked the spread of a genocidal power.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was a military hero from that war before he was President, and so it is especially noteworthy that the last message he gave as President was a warning about the rising political and economic power fo the military-industrial complex. That speech was prophetic, for since that time, we have found ourselves in a state of almost perpetual war. For many years, this was justified as part of the long struggle with international Communism. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we have continued to find adversaries that need fighting. And where concrete reasons and motivation are lacking, the war hawks fall back on honor.
This Memorial Day let us choose honesty over honor. Let us look the past square in the eye. We want the dead to rest in peace. The best way we can do that is to assure that in future generations, the case for submitting a single military life to risk will have to be made rigorously to a skeptical political establishment. Where there are profit-driven companies involved in the debates over war and peace, let them be exposed for that they are.
Words like honor and national pride are windy abstractions. Memory’s gritty reality is that a lot of young men rest in their graves, cut down before their time. The casualties of their wars include not only these young people who lie here, but also the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren they did not have.
The great sadness and waste of wars which have been fought needs to be front and center in our consciousness as we contemplate any future military actions. That is the best way to honor those who gave the last full measure of devotion.
Reading: Martha’s Vineyard Times May 21, 2019
Oak Bluffs selectmen unanimously voted Tuesday night to remove two controversial plaques honoring Confederate soldiers from a Civil War monument in Ocean Park and donate them to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. ...
The forum resulted from the Island’s chapter of the NAACP requesting the plaques be removed and donated to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum at a selectmen’s meeting in March.
Both plaques are part of the monument, depicting a Union soldier, which was erected in 1891 by Charles Strahan, a Confederate veteran who relocated to the Island after the Civil War. The one on the monument states: “The chasm is closed. In memory of the restored Union this tablet is dedicated by the Union veterans of the Civil War and patriotic citizens of Martha’s Vineyard in honor of the Confederate soldiers.” A second one provided background on the statue.
Bow Van Riper, museum research librarian, provided background on the history of slavery, abolition, Strahan’s statue, and the plaques. He spoke about racism both on and off the Island, including the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and children’s minstrel shows in Oak Bluffs.
Initially excluded from local Union veteran gatherings, Strahan commissioned the statue in honor of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for Union veterans that closed in 1956. Strahan, publisher of the Martha’s Vineyard Herald, bankrolled the $2,000 statue with $2 annual subscriptions to his newspaper and $500 out of his own pocket. The “chasm is closed” plaque was added in 1925.
The monument is unique among war memorials, which are often erected by organizations to honor individuals — Strahan’s statue was erected by an individual to honor an organization. The statue now belongs to the town.
“Is the centuries-old chasm at last, now, finally closed?” Van Riper said. “Having lived different lives, experienced different things, we see the world through very different, perhaps radically, different eyes … Remember this: History’s complicated, anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”
After Van Riper’s comments, selectmen opened the floor to members of the public. While past meetings where the plaques were discussed featured speakers both for and against the plaques removal, every person who spoke at Tuesday’s forum asked selectmen to remove the plaques. “Do the right thing” was a frequently used phrase.
David Vanderhoop, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and founder of Sassafrass Earth Education, was one of the first people to speak. He said he wanted to see the plaques removed and replaced with a memorial representing the resilience of all people, specifically Wampanoag and African Americans.
“Martha’s Vineyard should not and does not stand for white male supremacy — a symbol of the Confederacy,” Vanderhoop said. “We need to be able to look each other in the eye and stand side by side for the sake of our children, our grandchildren, and their children, and so on.”
...“The chasm has never closed for me,” Coleman Walton said. “Think about how this affects all our African American, our Wampanoag, our people of color.”
... Clennon King, a Roxbury filmmaker and frequent Island visitor, said he couldn’t understand why Confederates should be honored, and implored selectmen to remove the plaques. “There is a moral imperative,” King said. “Do the right thing, and do your job.”
...Selectman Greg Coogan said he wanted to see NAACP members, the museum, Wampanoag tribe members, and Island veterans all work together on an exhibit narrative once the plaques are in the museum.
No timeline was given, but the plaques will be removed by the town parks and recreation department. At the beginning of the meeting, members of the museum agreed to accept the plaques.
“I do believe that we should do the right thing,” selectman Jason Balboni said. “Let’s move forward.”
After the vote passed, Erik Blake, president of the Island’s chapter of the NAACP and the town’s police chief, said he was proud to see the turnout for the forum and to hear the public’s voice.
“We’re feeling ecstatic,” Blake said. “We’re just happy they did the right thing.”