The following short passage is excerpted from David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Blight’s newest book, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, will be published this fall.
At the end of the Civil War the American people faced an enormous challenge of memorialization. Their war of limited aims in 1861 had become an all-out struggle of conquest and survival between the largest armies the western hemisphere had ever seen. Approximately 620,000 soldiers died in the war, 60 percent on the Union side and 40 percent Confederate. American deaths in all other wars combined through the Korean conflict totaled 606,000. Death and mourning were everywhere in America in 1865; hardly a family had escaped its pall. In the North, 6 percent of white males aged 13-43 had died in the war; in the South, 18 percent were dead. Of the 180,000 African Americans who served in the Union army and navy, 20 percent perished. Diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, and pneumonia claimed more than twice as many soldiers as did battle. The most immediate legacy of the war was its slaughter and how to remember it.
Death on such a scale demanded meaning. During the war, soldiers in countless remote arbors, or on awful battlefield landscapes, had gathered to mourn and bury their comrades, even while thousands remained unburied, their skeletons lying about on the killing fields of Virginia, Tennessee, or Georgia. Women had begun rituals of burial and remembrance in informal ways well before the war ended, both in towns on the homefront and sometimes at the battlefront. Americans carried flowers to graves or to makeshift monuments representing their dead, and so was born the ritual of “Decoration Day,” known eventually as Memorial Day.
In most places, the ritual was initially a spiritual practice. But very soon, remembering the dead and what they died for developed partisan fault lines. The evolution of Memorial Day during its first twenty years or so became a contest between three divergent, and sometimes overlapping, groups: blacks and their white former abolitionist allies, white Northerners, and white Southerners. With time, in the North, the war’s two great results—black freedom and the preservation of the Union—were rarely accorded equal space. In the South, a uniquely Confederate version of the war’s meaning, rooted in resistance to Reconstruction, coalesced around Memorial Day practice. Decoration Day, and the ways in which it was observed, shaped Civil War memory as much as any other cultural ritual. The story of the origins of this important American day of remembrance is central to understanding how reconciliationist practices overtook the emancipationist legacies of the Civil War.
In Race and Reunion Blight goes on to explain the origins of Memorial Day, and also how its evolving celebration in the decades after the war reflected the changing ways that the nation was making sense of the conflict and its legacy. You can read the remarkable story of the first Memorial Day in David Blight’s New York Times piece “Forgetting Why We Remember.”