IT MUST have been quite a sight, Memorial Day 1869 in Cincinnati, where “a crowd of thirty thousand gathered in a cemetery to observe the decoration of 745 graves of that community’s war dead,” as the historian David W. Blight describes it. “Among the processions was a disciplined line of hundreds of women, all dressed in ‘purest white’ and carrying baskets of flowers. At a signal, each woman stepped forward and cast her flowers on a grave. The scale of such an event would dwarf an All Saints Day procession in some European cities.” A powerful and moving observance, yet certainly no more fervent than one held by newly freed Americans in Charleston, S.C., before the Civil War was even done. There, the author notes, “a large crowd of blacks gathered in Marion Square to watch as thirteen black women, elegantly dressed to represent the thirteen original states, presented the Union Commander, General Quincy A. Gillmore, with a flag, a bouquet of flowers, and a fan for Mrs. Lincoln.”
We Americans don’t memorialize the way we used to, and we should hope we never again have occasion to experience as much grief and horror as the nation did in the years following the bloodiest war in its history. The feeling of obligation to honor the dead was felt strongly and deeply in the postwar years, in both parts of the divided country. In the South, it was characterized by sadness and mourning and had an element of despair. How to justify and give meaning to such suffering and destruction? The same question troubled the victorious North, but its memorials also carried a message of hope for a better future, expressed in the voices of those free at last from enslavement, and in the country’s fuller acceptance of immigrants, so many of whom had given their lives for the Union, and in the realization of a new and stronger feeling of democracy fostered by a war in which millions of people from all walks of life had a part in the suffering.
Today our wars are no longer so democratic and haven’t been since the last world conflict. Many thousands died in our wars in the years after 1945, but the sacrifice has been much less widely shared. The memorial impulse continues to be strong, though, as we see once again today in observances all across the country: Those who have died, or have returned from war to cope with the pain of recovery in mind and body, will be honored by those who still feel an obligation to remember. An even better thing would be yet a wider continuing appreciation and attention — remembrance for the dead, help for their families, compassionate care and better opportunities for the living — extended throughout the year, in the spirit of 1869 America.