A Memorial Day tribute: three perspectives from Civil War contemporaries

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in the months and years following the Civil War. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in the months and years following the Civil War. There were few hearths and hearthstones spared from suffering and sacrifice, and people were moved by a desire to commemorate the fallen. Here are three thought-provoking perspectives from four Civil War contemporaries.

The Woman’s Perspective, by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911)
“At that time, it will be remembered, our country was dark with sorrowing women. The regiments came home, but the mourners went about the streets. The Grand Review passed through Washington; four hundred thousand ghosts of dead men kept invisible march to the drum-beats, and lifted to the stained and tattered flags the proud and unreturned gaze of the dead who have died in their glory.

“Our gayest scenes were black with crepe. The drawn faces of bereaved wife, mother, sister, and widowed girl showed piteously everywhere. Gray-haired parents knelt at the grave of the boy whose enviable fortune it was to be brought home in time to die in his mother’s room. Towards the nameless mounds of Arlington, of Gettysburg, and the rest, the yearning of desolated homes went out in those waves of anguish which seem to choke the very air that the happier and more fortunate must breathe.

“I do not think so much about the suffering of men, the fathers, the brothers, the sons bereft; but the women, the helpless, outnumbering, unconsulted women; they whom war trampled down, without a choice or protest; the patient, limited, domestic women, who thought little, but loved much, and, loving, had lost all, to them I would have spoken.”

The Soldier’s Perspective, Oliver Wendell Holmes, USA (1841-1935) and Sgt. Berry Greenwood Benson, CSA (1843-1923) as written by Shelby Foote
“As time went by, it is no wonder if the men looked back on that four-year holocaust with something of the feeling shared by men who have gone through, and survived, some cataclysmic phenomenon; a hurricane or an earthquake, say, or a horrendous railway accident. Memory smoothed the crumpled scroll, abolished fear, leached pain and grief, and removed the sting of death.

“Once a year at least—aside, that is, from regimental banquets and mass reunions, attended more and more sparsely by middle-aged, then old, then incredibly ancient men who dwindled finally to a handful of octogenarian drummer boys, still whiskered for the most part in a clean-shaven world that had long since passed them by—these survivors got together to honor their dead.

“On Decoration Day in 1884, Oliver Wendell Holmes said in part, ‘You could not stand up day after day, in those indecisive contests where overwhelming victory was impossible because neither side would run as they ought when beaten, without getting at last something of the same brotherhood for the enemy that the north pole of a magnet has for the south, each working in an opposite sense to the other, but unable to get along without the other. For one hour, twice a year at least—at the regimental dinner, where the ghosts sit at table more numerous than the living, and on this day when we decorate their graves—the dead come back and live with us. I see them now, more than I can number, as once I saw them on this earth.’

“In time, even death itself might be abolished. Sergeant Berry Benson saw it so when he got around to composing the Reminiscences he hoped would ‘go down amongst my descendants for a long time.’ Reliving the war in words, he began to wish he could relive it in fact, and he came to believe that he and his fellow soldiers, gray and blue, might one day be able to do just that: if not here on earth, then afterwards in Valhalla.

“‘Who knows,’ he asked as his narrative drew toward its close, ‘but it may be given to us, after this life, to meet again in the old quarters, to play chess and draughts, to get up soon to answer the morning roll call, to fall in at the tap of the drum for drill and dress parade, and again to hastily don our war gear while the monotonous patter of the long roll summons to battle?’

“Who knows but again the old flags, ragged and torn, snapping in the wind, may face each other and flutter, pursuing and pursued, while the cries of victory fill a summer day?

“And after the battle, then the slain and wounded will arise, and all will meet together under the two flags, all sound and well, and there will be talking and laughter and cheers, and all will say:

“‘Did it not seem real? Was it not as in the old days?’”

The Poet’s Perspective, by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Pensive On Her Dead Gazing (1865)

“Pensive on her dead gazing I heard the Mother of All,
Desperate on the torn bodies, on the forms covering the battle-fields gazing,
(As the last gun ceased, but the scent of the powder-smoke linger’d,)
As she call’d to her earth with mournful voice while she stalk’d,
Absorb them well O my earth, she cried, I charge you lose not my sons, lose not an atom,
And you streams absorb them well, taking their dear blood,
And you local spots, and you airs that swim above lightly impalpable,
And all you essences of soil and growth, and you my rivers’ depths,
And you mountain sides, and the woods where my dear children’s blood trickling redden’d,
And you trees down in your roots to bequeath to all future trees,
My dead absorb or South or North—my young men’s bodies absorb, and their precious, precious blood,
Which holding in trust for me faithfully back again give me many a year hence,
In unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence,
In blowing airs from the fields back again give me my darlings, give my immortal heroes,
Exhale me them centuries hence, breathe me their breath, let not an atom be lost,
O years and graves! O air and soil! O my dead, an aroma sweet!
Exhale them perennial sweet death, years, centuries hence.”