Those Who Have Borne the Battle

Free Those Who Have Borne the Battle by James Wright

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Authors: James Wright
remaining,” was now a shared obligation. This theme, of completing the fight for which citizens have made the ultimate sacrifice, would persist into our time as a means for energizing and rationalizing a cause and a war.
    Lincoln fully embraced and indeed glorified the broader cause that necessitated the Civil War in his remarks. But in less deft hands the argument would shift: if one dies in a legal war on behalf of the nation, then those who survive are obliged to pick up the spear and the flag and continue the battle. This obligation becomes a cause now justified by the sacrifice rather than the sacrifice being justified by the cause. Sacrifice not only leads to more sacrifice; it requires more if we are fully to honor our heroes. In 1869, speaking at Gettysburg Cemetery, Henry Ward Beecher insisted, “May the soldiers’ children never prove unworthy of their fathers’ name.” And Beecher believed that such worthiness could be proved in heroic battle on behalf of the nation: “Let them be willing to shed their blood, to lay down their lives, for the sake of their country.” 37 Such rhetoric escalated war to a test of national will rather than a summons for possible sacrifice for a challenge to the Republic.

    The gathering that would initiate the Northern (and then national) celebration called Decoration Day, or Memorial Day, was organized in 1868 by the Grand Army of the Republic, an already powerful organization of Union veterans of the Civil War. John Logan, a former Union general and then a US senator from Ohio, was the head of the GAR. On the first Decoration Day, he called upon the nation to honor the “heroic dead” and to resolve to guard their graves “with sacred vigilance” so that all in the future would understand the price that they had paid for “a free and undivided Republic.” 38
    This occasion provided an opportunity for orators to challenge and obligate as well as to honor and remember. Speaking on Memorial Day 1895, at Harvard, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., veteran of Antietam and several subsequent brutal battles, told the students and guests that being a “gentleman” is a worthy goal: “Yet what has that name been built on but the soldier’s choice of honor rather than life? To be a soldier or descended from soldiers, in time of peace to be ready to give one’s life rather than suffer disgrace, that is what the word has meant; and if we try to claim it at less cost than a splendid carelessness for life, we are trying to steal the good will without the responsibilities of the place.” 39
    As David Blight summarizes, “Many a widow or mother at Memorial Day observances must have strained for forbearance of endless expressions of joyous death on the altars of national survival. Northern speeches tended to be mournful, celebratory, and fiercely patriotic all at once.” In this telling, the “soldiers had died necessary deaths; they had saved the republic, and their blood had given the nation new life.” In the “cult of the fallen soldier,” a new “manly ideal of heroism was redefined for coming generations . . . Memorial Day became a legitimizing ritual of the new American nationalism forged out of the war.” 40
    In the beginning, the Confederate dead had no place, at least no honored place, in the national cemeteries. They were not remembered by their reunited nation, but they were mourned by their families and eulogized by the former states of the Confederacy. White Southerners, largely women, founded memorial associations. Because the South was excluded initially from the national cemetery movement, these groups
by their existence asserted the justice of the cause and the heroism of the sacrifice of the white Southern dead. The Southern associations exhumed and brought together the Confederate dead, returning many from temporary graves in the North. For many white Southerners, this

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