Sunday, June 14, 2015

Tributes to the Fallen

The Evolution of Memorial Days

Boston Memorial Day.

Memorial Days are not what they used to be.  Before the traditions of picnics, fireworks, and discount retail sales, the holiday served as a profound moment to contemplate history as well as contemporary events.  The overwhelming carnage of the American Civil War forced citizens of the 1860s to cope with the unthinkable ramifications the conflict presented.  One of the first “Decoration Days” occurred in 1864 Boalsburg, PA when three local ladies placed flowers upon the graves of those killed in the ongoing struggle for a vast future.  Yet, postwar tributes to military dead revealed not only patriotism and pageantry but also political ambition.

Such rituals emerged at a time when parades and graveside ceremonies played a major role in inciting partisan discourse.  On such occasions, citizens who shared similar political and cultural views amid Reconstruction could congregate to further instill political ideology—whether they were condemning civil rights laws in the South or touting the triumph of Union in the North.  For ex-rebels, politics was a means to keep the defeated Confederacy ideologically alive, and postwar Southerners mastered it with a sense of urgency and a dedication to fallen combatants.  Northerners were also quick to tout the supremacy and losses of their cause.  The May 30, 1877 edition of Altoona, Pennsylvania's Evening Mirror noted a solemnity over the city as “the half-masted flag floated gently in the breeze, speaking the language of sadness more fervently than words.”  This loss was entirely necessary to ensure “the suppression of the rebellion” and the survival of democratic government.

Chicago Decoration Day.
Many of the living continually designated the costs of war as part of a greater calling, aspiring to the “unfinished work” Lincoln proclaimed in the Gettysburg Address.  Veterans demanded that Memorial Days serve as foundations for civic literacy and historical appreciation.  In this sense, commemoration through monument dedications and parades was a symbolic connection between the living and the dead.  Veterans felt an imperative obligation to their deceased comrades but also used monuments to keep alive their own achievements as veterans and engaged citizens.  By the 1910s, most old animosities between North and South faded as aged Civil War veterans gathered for reunions and continued to neglect the unkept promises of civil rights for emancipated slaves.

Following the Spanish American War and the First World War, Memorial Day evolved into a far less divisive tradition of honoring fallen veterans from all conflicts.  This pattern grew to unparalleled heights during and after WWII.  The May 31, 1945 edition of the Altoona Mirror remarked, “Throughout the city there was a universal suspension of business and the people at large joined in the most notable observance of Memorial Day that has been experienced here for a whole generation.”  The immediacy of loss and sacrifice consumed Americans, necessitating mass displays of commitment to the national effort.  Seventy years after the end of that global conflict, citizens should mark Memorial Days not only as moments of remembrance but also vivid reminders of the horrid costs of warfare.

Commemorating America's fallen in the segregated Arlington, 1943.

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