One of my co-ministers at the Church of the Larger Fellowship, Bob LaVallee, is a veteran who served in Afghanistan and is now a candidate for ministry. As we met this week to finalize the elements of CLF’s service for Memorial Day, he told us “in the Army, we call it Barbecue Day.”
At first I laughed, and then I fell somber as I thought of these people who are literally in the line of fire, who had to distance themselves mentally from what Memorial Day actually means – because it means we are honoring and remembering those who have died in battle – and it means that these very men and women could, but for grace, be in one of the graves we decorate with a flower and an American flag.
But despite the losses our young country faced in earlier wars, our nation did not formally mark the loss of those who served until after the Civil War – perhaps it is because other wars were difficult, but this was personal. This was literally brother against brother, with the dead bodies of soldiers and civilians strewn across familiar landscape.
There had been so much death, especially in the last couple of years, with the long siege at Petersburg, the disastrous Battle of the Crater, and of course Sherman’s march. By the time Sherman got to Charleston in 1865, the city had been abandoned by the white people, and according to Yale historian David Blight, the only people left were thousands of freed men and women, who celebrated Sherman’s arrival and held celebrations all over the city.
But it wasn’t just celebration of victory. As Blight explains:
“the black folks of Charleston had planned one more ceremony … a burial ceremony. It turns out that during the last months of the war the Confederate Army turned…the Washington Racecourse into an open air cemetery — excuse me, prison. And in that open air prison, in the infield of the horse track — about 260-odd Union soldiers had died of disease and exposure — and they were buried in unmarked graves in a mass gravesite out behind the grandstand of the racetrack. And by the way, there was no more important and symbolic site in low country planter/slaveholding life than their racetrack.
“Well, the black folks at Charleston got organized, they knew about all this. They went to the site. They re-interred all the graves, the men. They couldn’t mark them with names, they didn’t have any names. Then they made them proper graves and they built a fence all the way around this cemetery, about 100 yards long and … sixty yards deep, and they whitewashed the fence and over an archway they painted the inscription “Martyrs of the Racecourse.” And then on May 1st 1865 they held a parade of 10,000 people, on the racetrack, led by 3,000 black children carrying armloads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body,” followed then by black women, then by black men — it was regimented this way — then by contingents of Union infantry.
“Everybody marched all the way around the racetrack; as many as could fit got into the gravesite. Five black preachers read from scripture. A children’s choir sang the national anthem, America the Beautiful, and several spirituals, and then they broke from that and went back into the infield of the racetrack and did essentially what you and I do on Memorial Day, they ran races, they listened to speeches, and the troops marched back and forth and they held picnics. This was the first Memorial Day.”
Now the “received” history says Memorial Day was founded by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, who declared in 1868 that a Decoration Day would be celebrated on May 30th. And other cities claim ‘first’ – but Blight discovered the true first almost by mistake, in an aside in a letter he was reading for another project – and it took a while to confirm, because the story wasn’t told except in long-forgotten documents of the time. As he notes, this was the power of the Lost Cause in the wake of the war, to erase a story. But Blight’s discovery gives us not only an important piece of history that had long been whitewashed, but also shows us more about the impulse to memorialize, and impulse that came out of a deep yearning of the collective soul of our nation.
To speak to that yearning came the poets – many of whom were Unitarian or Universalist or one of the Transcendentalists.
Now it’s important to note that we may wrestle a lot with war today, but Unitarians and Universalists had deep connections to the Civil War – some served as soldiers, some as officers; some, like Clara Barton, served as nurses or doctors; some, like Union Colonel Thomas Higginson, not only formed the First South Carolina volunteers – an early black regiment, also collected spirituals in order to preserve them; some, like Laura Towne, served as teachers of runaways and newly freed people including those becoming soldiers themselves; some, like Theodore Parker, were ministers standing up for the abolition of slavery and risking a place in the pulpit.
But the poets… they gave voice to the cause of freedom and union – notably Julia Ward Howe, whose “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was written – and later set to music at the urging of President Lincoln. Herman Melville, writing about the 1864 siege in Petersburg gives voice to the painful loss of a generation in “On the Slain Collegians”:
Woe for the homes of the North,
And woe for the seats of the South;
All who felt life’s spring in prime,
And were swept by the wind of their place and time –
All lavish hearts, on whichever side,
Of birth urbane or courage high,
Armed them for the stirring wars –
Armed them – some to die.
And of course Walt Whitman, one of the great Transcendentalists, was also probably our greatest war poet, writing this:
How solemn as one by one,
As the ranks returning worn and sweaty, as the men file by where stand,
As the faces the masks appear, as I glance at the faces studying the masks,
(As I glance upward out of this page studying you, dear friend, whoever you are,)
How solemn the thought of my whispering soul to each in the ranks, and to you,
I see behind each mask that wonder a kindred soul,
O the bullet could never kill what you really are, dear friend,
Nor the bayonet stab what you really are;
The soul! yourself I see, great as any, good as the best,
Waiting secure and content, which the bullet could never kill,
Nor the bayonet stab, O friend.
It is in the poetry of our American/Unitarian/Universalist writers – and the songs – these tender, heart wrenching songs, some of which we’re hearing today – written not in response to the victory that comes with war, but in response to the crush in our souls that remembers each death as a father, a lover, a friend, a colleague. It is here in the lyrics of the Civil War that we first understand that feeling of the weight of the memories, the deep sense of loss when we consider over the centuries just how many young men and women died in the cause of something greater than them, yet somehow wasteful and regrettable.
It’s all so difficult. When the casualty is someone we know, we grapple internally with loss, with pain, with the deep well of sorrow that drowns us in cold unsettling grief; yet while much of our personal mourning is private, we publicly memorialize. And when the casualties are people we don’t know – we don’t have an obvious place to set down our grief. Think about all the times we’ve seen images of caskets at Dover, each carefully draped with an American flag, just a clip on the evening news – what do we do with that? How do we handle that?
This is where public memorials – and Memorial Day – helps. All over the country, the veteran’s groups put fresh American flags on all the graves of veterans in big and little cemeteries, each with a brief ceremony at each stone. Larger ceremonies are held in town squares and war memorials. And in a few minutes, we will also memorialize through the ritual of lighting candles for those we have lost to war. We will speak their names as we remember their faces, making sure that others know who they were.
Whether in big ceremonies or small, memorializing formally, as ritualist Brigitte Sion says, creates a space where we can claim our right to grief and mourning, to honor our need to make space for our memory. Because when that space isn’t provided, we find ways to make it – like the black folk in Charleston 151 years ago.
In memorial, the act of remembering is a physical act, that connects us with the past, that connects us with life, that alters time so that past and present can meet, even for a short while. And we find strength in the remembering. Director Anne Bogart says “As a result of a partnership with memory and the consequent journeys through the past, I feel nourished, encouraged, and energized. I feel more profoundly connected to and inspired by those who came before.”
Connected and inspired.
This, especially, when remembering those who served their country in the military, is key. It’s hard now – we have such a difficult relationship to war; misguided policies led us into controversial conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Panama, Grenada, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan. Remembering those wars requires us to grapple with larger, difficult issues. Even in those wars where our aims were more honorable, more clear, the losses still draw us up short when we balance the cause and the casualties.
Yet we cannot help but remember with some admiration – remembering sacrifice and honoring the lives of those people who died. Remembering is such a right and remarkable act, that we institutionalized it and continue to remember and honor those who have served. We acknowledge their service, we recall the circumstances of their deaths, and we dwell in the quiet sorrow of our loss … but mostly, we remember their lives. We connect with the living – and we journey with them, even if only for a moment. We recognize the souls that walked among us, while they lived. We hear their names, and we see their spirits in those who bring them to our table today – they live in us. As Kathleen McTigue writes – and we will read together responsively – they are with us still. As we complete our reading, I invite you to come forward to the table as you are so moved, to light a candle and speak the names of those you wish for all of us to remember today.
In the struggles we choose for ourselves, in the ways we move forward in our lives and bring our world forward with us,
It is right to remember the names of those who gave us strength in this choice of living. It is right to name the power of hard lives well-lived.
We share a history with those lives. We belong to the same motion.
They too were strengthened by what had gone before. They too were drawn on by the vision of what might come to be.
Those who lived before us, who struggled for justice and suffered injustice before us, have not melted into the dust, and have not disappeared.
They are with us still.
The lives they lived hold us steady.
Their words remind us and call us back to ourselves. Their courage and love evoke our own.
We, the living, carry them with us: we are their voices, their hands and their hearts.
We take them with us, and with them choose the deeper path of living.
(congregants light candles in memory)
Spirit of Life, whom we have called by many names
in thanksgiving and in anguish—
Bless the poets and those who mourn
Send peace for the soldiers who did not make the wars
but whose lives were consumed by them
Let strong trees grow above graves far from home
Breathe through the arms of their branches
The earth will swallow your tears while the dead sing
“No more, never again, remember me.”
For the wounded ones, and those who received them back,
let there be someone ready when the memories come
when the scars pull and the buried metal moves
and forgiveness for those of us who were not there
for our ignorance.
And in us, veterans in a forest of a thousand fallen promises,
let new leaves of protest grow on our stumps.
Give us courage to answer the cry of humanity’s pain
And with our bare hands, out of full hearts,
with all our intelligence
let us create the peace.