The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture

By Alice Fahs; Joan Waugh | Go to book overview

Decoration Days

The Origins of Memorial Day in North and South

David W. Blight

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 on the 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 died in the war; in the South 18 percent of these 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 died in battle. The most immediate legacy of the war was its slaughter and how to remember it.1

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 as thousands remained unburied, their skeletons lying 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 home front and 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 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 abolitionist allies, white Northerners, and white Southerners. With time, in the North the war's two primary results— black freedom and the preservation of the Union—were rarely accorded

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