Monday, May 25, 2009

`The Real War Will Never Get in the Books'

Memorial Day was a preview of coming attractions, a day off from school just weeks before the start of summer vacation. It meant a parade in the morning and a cookout in the afternoon, and I can’t recall a moment of reflection or gratitude. We were impatient with patriotism. Anything that drew our attention to the past we found oppressively beside-the-point. In the arrogance of youth only the moment existed. Past and future were fiction. Even our obsession with the Civil War centennial – reading Bruce Catton and Fletcher Pratt, visiting Gettysburg, collecting Civil War trading cards – felt like just another hobby, like collecting stamps or butterflies. In the epilogue to the third volume of The Civil War: A Narrative, Shelby Foote writes:

“Once a year at least – aside, that is, from regimental banquets and mass reunions, attended more and more sparsely by the middle-aged, then old, then incredibly ancient men who dwindled finally to a handful of octogenarian drummer boys, still whiskered for the most part in a clean-shaven world that had long since passed them by – these survivors got together to honor their dead. Observed throughout the North on May 30, Memorial Day hopscotched the calendar in the South, where individual states made their choices between April 26, May 10, and June 3. In any case, whenever it came, this day belonged to the veterans and their fallen comrades, and they made the most of it, beginning with their choice of a speaker, always with the hope that he would rival the `few appropriate remarks’ Lincoln had uttered at Gettysburg on a similar occasion.”

Foote goes on to recount a speech given on Memorial Day 1884, at Keene, N.H., by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841-1935). As an army captain during the Civil War, Holmes had been seriously wounded three times. Twenty years before his speech, when Lincoln had stood on a parapet at Fort Stevens, Holmes is supposed to have yelled, “Get down, you damn fool!” In 1884, speaking to fellow Civil War veterans, Holmes said Memorial Day was “the most sacred of the year,” and would always be observed by Americans. He continued:

“But even if I am wrong, even if those who are to come after us are to forget all that we hold dear, and the future is to teach and kindle its children in ways as yet unrevealed, it is enough for us that to us this day is dear and sacred….For one hour, twice a year at least – at the regimental dinner, where the ghosts sit at table more numerous than the living, and on this day when we decorate their graves – the dead come back and live with us. I see them now, more than I can number, as I saw them on this earth.”

Perhaps it’s the nature of a civil war, of a conflict within a nation, especially one so young, to impel memorials as aids to memory. Most of my ancestors didn’t arrive in the United States until decades after the Civil War, but I feel most American when reading Whitman, Lincoln, Foote or some other gifted witness, participant or historian of the war. The Civil War feels like a death in the family, but it’s important not to confuse memory and commemoration with understanding or empathy. That we’ll never have, as Whitman, the Civil War hospital nurse, suggests in Specimen Days (1882):

“Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the official surface courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession war; and it is best they should not—the real war will never get in the books. In the mushy influences of current times, too, the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten.”

1 comment:

Ciara said...

Thank you for these comments on Memorial Day. The Holmes quotation is itself poetry.