Not Yet Grieved -- A Memorial Day Sermon
This sermon was delivered at Memorial Day services in 2010 at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. It is based on Drew Gilpin Faust's Republic of Suffering and David Blight's Race and Reunion.
I believe that one of the purposes of preaching in the liberal religious tradition is to speak a prophetic word about the stories we live by, our deepest self-understandings.
Let’s start at the top: before the Civil war, most people in this country were evangelical Protestants who died at home. Because evangelical Protestantism says that you are saved by your relationship with Jesus and God at the time of your death, the Good Death, the death that meant you were heaven bound was one in which the dying person was conscious, and confident of his/her salvation and was unafraid to die. To die this way, meant that you were saved. Everyone’s sinful life could be overcome by this good death.
But Six hundred thousand people or more died during the Civil War in just five years. They died far from home, by gunshot, and by cannon fire and as the result of the medical treatment they received and of awful diseases that swept through the army camps and prisons. They died by the thousands on some days. They died in numberless masses and were buried often in nameless graves.
They did not die good deaths, according to the religious and social values of the time, but the worst possible deaths: among strangers, without warning, often in agony, and unprepared. They did not have the time for the calm contemplation of their own death and for the acceptance of it which marked a saved person.
And the machinery of death was non-existent at the beginning of the war. Record keeping was atrocious, there were the flimsiest and most incomplete information about who served where and when and if someone was wounded or killed. Aside from the private arrangements made by the officer elites, there was no army mechanism for returning the dead to their family, or even notifying them, or even keeping track of where they were buried. Families here in the North would go South to look through hospitals and battle fields trying to find their sons and brothers and husbands.
But the overwhelming numbers of the Civil War Dead defied the effort to make meaning out of those deaths. In a war in which two mass armies confronted each other, each fed by conscription, the purpose of the war, the strategy and the tactics, all came down to killing as many of the opposing army as possible. The war became a cataclysm of mechanized killing. No meaning could be made out of any individual action. Our country did step into the abyss, into the apocalypse, into that far territory where the human capability for violence and killing and bloodlust stands revealed, a place that we think only others have inhabited.
How do a people step back from that abyss? How could this country ever recover from the level of violence and senseless death that the Civil War created?
When the war ended, the US government made a commitment to find the grave of every Union soldier and rebury his body in a national cemetery. For the most part this was eventually done, though no one can be sure. The government sent letters to as many living civil war veterans as it could find asking them to report the locations of graves of Union soldiers that they had seen, or even dug. Thousands upon thousands of letters were received, and many Union soldiers had kept notebooks filled with the graves they had seen, knowing that they might be the only witness to another man’s name and place of burial. It was Clara Barton, the Universalist woman from Worcester county, who first proposed turning to the memories of the living veterans for the information that the government had not been able to maintain.
Human beings make meaning out of violence; they build monuments to the fallen and invest the causes of war with sacred grandeur. It is the most human thing in the world to do. In most cases, in the modern world, it is enough to fly the flag and say that they died “for their country.”
But in the case of the American civil war that proved to be not so easy. After all, it was against the constitutional government of this country that the Confederates fought. In the days of the war, they were called without contradiction as traitors and treasonous.
So the struggle for the meaning of all those deaths began right away, and it began over the bodies of the Union and Confederate dead.
One of the reasons why the federal government embarked on the ambitious process of reburying the Union dead was because to leave them where they were, unmarked and unprotected, was to belie the higher cause of the war. If the war was fought to end slavery, as it was finally understood, then it was fought the dignity of every person, and leaving the graves of those who fought unmarked and unprotected violated that principle. And the second reason, was that many of the Union dead were buried in Confederate sympathizing territory and the graves were not protected. In fact, in some areas, confederates sympathizers were dishonoring those graves, treating them as one might expect patriots to treat the graves of foreign invaders.
Memorial Day grew up as a movement to mark and protect the graves of the Civil War Dead. In some cases, it was a Southern ladies movement to collect and decorate the graves of the confederate dead.
According to Professor David Blight of the Yale University History Department, the first memorial day was observed by formerly enslaved black people at the Washington Race Course (today the location of Hampton Park) in Charleston, South Carolina. The race course had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp for captured Union soldiers in 1865, as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died there. Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, formerly enslaved people exhumed the bodies from the mass grave and reinterred them properly with individual graves. They built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch and declared it a Union graveyard. The work was completed in only ten days. On May 1, 1865, the Charleston newspaper reported that a crowd of up to ten thousand, mainly black residents, including 2800 children, proceeded to the location for included sermons, singing, and a picnic on the grounds, thereby creating the first Decoration Day.
It appears that in many areas, the local African American community of former slaves tended and protected the graves of Union soldiers, despite the animosity of their white neighbors.
In the postwar period, the federal government built the massive national cemeteries that now gathered the Union Dead. The segregated army units of African American soldiers provided most of the grisly labor of finding, exhuming, identifying if possible, transporting and re-burying the bodies.
Note that this was done only for the Union dead. For a long time after the war, the government extended no such services to the Confederate dead. The care of the Confederate dead was left to private organizations, assisted by state governments.
In I898, President William McKinley accepted the federal responsibility for the care and preservation of the Confederate Dead. A meaning was being created out of the deaths of all those who died in the Civil War, whose graves marched in silent phalanx of identical markers across the green fields of the new national cemeteries: it was a meaning that did not merely say that all of the dead were sad victims of war, but that all were heroes of the nation, who happened to find themselves fighting brother against brother, all with good hearts and good purposes. The dead, now lying side by side, would bring us peace.
Please, let us look at what was happening at this point. The 1890’s were the consolidation of white supremacy in the South. It was during the 1890’s that state after Southern state wrote constitutions that disenfranchised African Americans, while the Federal government supported their actions as within their rights. It was in 1893, that the US Supreme Court affirmed segregation in Plessy Vs. Ferguson. The 1890’s saw the widespread dissemination of the revisionist history of the Civil War – that it was not about slavery, but over differences in constitutional interpretation between white men of equal honor and purpose. The 1890’s saw numerous lynchings of African American men in the South, a crime for which the federal government saw no way or need to punish or deter.
The peace made between northern whites and southern whites in the late 19th century was a peace made by excluding from memory the millions of African American slaves and freedpeople whose lives and freedom were at stake, were the stake, in the Civil War.
The aging emancipationist Frederick Douglas said ”whatever else I may forget, I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.” He speaks of the stubborn truth of history.
Death corrodes meaning. Every death carries the potential message that life is meaningless and futile, that we are but a cluster of cells dancing to this strange energy called life which then flickers out. Death on the mass scale erodes all sense of social meaning, of social value, of any social purpose. Why feed the hungry if they are all going to die anyway? Why teach a child to read if they are just going to fed in the meatgrinder of war? Why do anything if one reduces life to that bleak level.
It is the work of mourning to sweep back the tidal waves of meaninglessness and despair that can overwhelm the grieving. It can seem like hopeless work, but it does save the world by reminding us that small acts of love do matter, that acts of mercy do last, that the civilized world was not built in day and must be rebuilt every day.
A person in grief, a society sick and insane with intolerable grief, searches for some meaning to make all of this suffering manageable. The hunger is so great. That is why that the grand theories of history and principle that are proposed to give meaning to those deaths must rest on the largest truth possible.
The truth that Memorial Day has come to embody is this: we in the United States could not fight the Civil War forever. The Union fought for this nation to remain one nation; we denied that they could ever leave, so now, we have to accept the rebels as equals among us.
But in reaching for that truth, this nation accepted an untruth. That the African American people of this continent are off to the side, not really crucial to this story, that we can build a lasting peace in this country by reconciling whites and ignoring the injustice done to the black population.
The problem is that all of the dead are not yet grieved. All the African American dead slaves who fought for their freedom on this bloody continent, by any means, including violence and guile and mercy to those who may not have deserved it, they are not yet grieved.
Just for a thought experiment, imagine a great project in which all of the graves of the African American slaves were found, and each person identified and given their own marker in a great green cemetery. And all of the Native and Indigenous people who fought to defend themselves were arrayed by white markers on a green green field. And we walked among those graves, and read each name and placed a tiny little flower on each grave: all of them. And we allowed ourselves to say, in the words of Walt Whitman,
"Young man I think I know you -- I think this face is the face of Christ himself,
dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies."
dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies."
Then imagine yourself telling the story of America on that day, in the presence of all of our dead, including all those not yet grieved, born and died on every side of every bloody conflict, the natives and the settlers, the yanks and rebels, too, the strikers and the strikebreakers, the slaves and the slave-catchers, the lynchers and the lynched, the farmers and the rancher, the fighters and warriors of every war. What story would we tell? Where would we find the words large enough to hold them all?