Did Memorial Day Give Us the Confederate Flag?

What’s the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day? The straight answer is that the former commemorates soldiers who died in battle, the latter honors all soldiers (even Bowe Bergdahl?). The funny answer is we get Memorial Day off as part of a three-day weekend to kick-off summer. On Veterans day we work in preparation for Thanksgiving and the big holiday season (some call Advent).

The difficult answer is that Memorial Day started to remember soldiers who died in the Civil War, Veterans Day for troops in The Great (Pretty Good?) War. Now, just like with three-day weekends for Presidents, Labor, and Columbus, we lump all soldiers into holidays that originally referred to specific wars.

You have to wonder if this is the best way to remember veterans or deceased soldiers when you get one day for all of those soldiers. David Rieff has a new book out arguing that remembering the past can actually be harmful:

What I’m saying is, there are examples—not a few, but quite a number of examples—where remembering, far from leading to truth, justice, and reconciliation, has led to more war. Three obvious examples of that are the Balkans in the 1990s, where I was a correspondent; Northern Ireland, for 30 years and, some people would say, for 800 years; and the Middle East. And in all three of those cases it seems to me that invoking history, invoking the wounds of the past, the crimes of the past, the conflict of the past, has led to more bloodshed.

In the case of the United States, our memories of the past don’t necessarily lead to bloodshed, but they do make us uncomfortable. Memories of slavery and segregation put whites and blacks in awkward relations that leave persons with no experience of owning slaves or Jim Crow feeling the legacy of racism should all inform interactions between whites and black, from chance encounters on the subway to public school hiring practices.

But how much is our own government to blame for the way some southerners keep the memory of the Confederacy alive? Memorial Day originally was all about remembering the Civil War, with blacks, Yankees, and Southerners all vying to honor their side:

COLUMBUS, Ga. — Right on either side of Alabama, there are two places with the same name.

Like the one over in Mississippi, this Columbus was founded in the 1820s and sits just a few minutes from countryside in almost any way you drive.

Residents say it was here, in the years after the Civil War, that Memorial Day was born.

They say that in the other Columbus, too.

It does not take much for the historically curious in either town — like Richard Gardiner, a professor of teacher education at Columbus State University here — to explain why theirs is the true originator of a revered American holiday and why the other is well-meaning but simply misguided. . . .

Waterloo, N.Y., was designated the official birthplace of Memorial Day by presidential proclamation in 1966, and indeed, beginning in May 1866, Waterloo held an annual townwide commemoration.

But women in Boalsburg, Pa., which has a claim as the holiday’s birthplace, began decorating graves each year as early as October 1864. In and around Carbondale, Ill., according to the Jackson County Historical Society, there are two markers making such an assertion in two different cemeteries. James H. Ryan, a retired Army colonel, has descended into the Logan archives and come out with a strong case for the town where he lives, Petersburg, Va.

This — readers, please take note — is just a partial and by no means definitive list.

But the claims of the two Columbuses, eyeing each other across Alabama, are among the more nuanced and possibly the most intertwined.

Maybe the solution is Rieff’s distinction between memory and history:

History is really about the past. There’s the great English novelist L.P. Hartley, who wrote a book called The Go-Between. And the first line of that book is “The past is another country. They do things differently there.” History is about the difference between the past and the present. Memory is about using the past for the purposes of the present, or for some group in the present. History is critical history … Memory serves the present. History is the material out of which this collective memory is made. But collective memory, commemoration, is not history. If it is history, it’s so simplified and reduced to be, as I say, to be closer to myth than to history in any usable sense.

That distinction may explain why this Old Life historian gets the last Monday of May 2016 off from research to do yard work.

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