Sunday, May 28, 2017

Keep The Civil War In Memorial Day

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument is rotting while Jefferson Davis' statues gleam across the South

Memorial Day is the one national holiday this country has connected to its most consequential event, the Civil War. You wouldn't know that, however, since it has been turned into a day to kick off summer, or has been co-opted as a day to express loyalty to veterans and the military. I don't want to be the pedant who has to say this, but I will: Memorial Day has NOTHING to do with veterans or people currently serving in the armed forces. It is a day to honor the dead of America's wars.

The Civil War, which took the lives of 2% of the entire country's population, required some kind of way to make sense of such immense loss. Already right after the war in May of 1865 freedmen and freedwomen in Charleston, South Carolina, honored the Union dead as a way to acknowledge the sacrifice that they had made for their freedom. While Memorial Day would not exist in an official capacity until 1868, the early, unofficial celebrations like the one in Charlestown demonstrated the desire to commemorate the dead.

It is time that we do more to acknowledge the memory of the Civil War from the viewpoint of the Union. While I whole-heartedly support the removal of Confederate monuments, that necessary work does not build up a positive counter-narrative. The Civil War monuments in the North have languished. Just go check out the graffitied and decrepit Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the Upper West Side of New York. That needs to change.

We need to remember the immense sacrifice necessary to end slavery and reunite the country. We need to remember the heroic deeds of slaves, who were the primary actors in the story of their emancipation. We need to stop seeing the Civil War through the frame of "brother against brother" and (even worse) "tragedy." And I think we should also use this day also to remember Reconstruction, and those who perished trying to improve the lives of African Americans. We need to remember that much struggle still needs to happen.

I think Lincoln's words in Gettysburg are still unequaled, and should be the basis of our commemorations on Memorial Day.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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