Only a nation can mourn its dead. There is always the abstract reverence for sacrifice, the human awe that acts of valor inspire; that is universal. But to mourn takes something greater. You can admire the Dying Gaul, or Horatius at the bridge; you can only grieve for your countrymen.

This may be, in part, why it took more than a century for Memorial Day to take shape in this country. America was a nation born in war—unlike almost any in history before it—yet the early devotions to its fallen sons were mostly the private remembrances of soldiers’ organizations. A generation of relative peace followed, with fewer than 3,000 battle deaths between 1815 and 1861.

Then came civil war, when secession put the question of the American nation to a mortal test. Recent interpretations left and right have centered slavery at the expense of Union, the principle that Lincoln and other Northern leaders claimed as their motivation: that the American nation was bound by ties of law, of history, of purpose that could not be broken. Ultimately, more than 360,000 Northern men and boys died for that proposition—nearly twenty times as many Americans as had died in all theaters of conflict since 1775.

The war had settled the question: this was one nation. Yet that nation had also been transformed, in no small part because so many thousands of its sons had shed their blood. And so their sacrifice became a central object of the American civil religion: in Lincoln’s famous homage to the fallen men at Gettysburg, in the highly visible practices of the Grand Army of the Republic, and especially in the observance of Decoration Day, when the graves of the war dead would be adorned with flowers, flags, and other objects of patriotic reverence. The remembrance of their sacrifice served doubly to remind the mourners of the cause for which they fought, as a visible illustration of the price by which the Union—the American nation—had been preserved.

This was not the whole story, though. Beside those many Union dead, some 258,000 Americans had fallen in service to the South. Their families and communities would honor them, of course. But what was the nation to do about them?

This, too, was somewhat unique to the American experience. There are ideological civil wars—the English, the Russian, the Spanish—in which one side’s plain demonic bent leaves little room for national soul-searching. And there are sectional civil wars, which tend to resolve either in divorce or in the total annihilation of one side. Ours was a rare example of the latter (with a touch of the former), in which the defeated rebels were left to reintegrate into the order they had abandoned. That integration was not easy, nor was the process by which rebel soldiers—especially the rebel dead—returned to a place of honor in the nation’s memory. The Grand Army of the Republic vehemently opposed any memorials to the Confederate fallen—as did many Confederate groups, who argued that the Southern boys’ memory was entrusted only to the South.

Moses Jacob Ezekiel's statue memorializing the Confederate dead is removed from Arlington National Cemetery, December 2023 (Arlington National Cemetery/public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

After long decades of debate, a Confederate section at Arlington National Cemetery was finally approved in 1903, providing for the reorganization of scattered Southern graves into a single, dignified location with a monument to their valor at its center. To construct the memorial, the United Daughters of the Confederacy tapped Moses Jacob Ezekiel, a globally celebrated sculptor who, long before setting up his studio in Rome, had been wounded as a young cadet at the Battle of New Market.

Ezekiel himself embodied much of the paradox and uncertainty of the moment: a Southerner in an age of Northern domination; a Jew in a time of Christian uniformity; an expatriate to the Old World at the very moment European masses were flocking to American shores. He was also an unshakeable adherent of the Lost Cause.

Yet the monument this devoted rebel designed is replete with symbols of peace, of national healing, of promise for the restored nation in the dawning century. Its centerpiece is a colossal figure of the South personified, wearing an olive wreath on her head and holding in her right hand a pruning hook balanced on a plow. Isaiah 2:4 is inscribed beneath her feet. (In Ezekiel’s original design, a second figure of the South was falling on a shield inscribed with “States’ Rights” and “Free Trade”; in the final version, he swapped both out for a simple “Constitution.”) Among those who spoke at the memorial’s dedication was Washington Gardner, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.

To honor the Confederate dead was as sure a declaration of victory as the Union could have mustered: to insist that these Southern boys were sons of the United States who would be mourned by their mother country was to reaffirm, by a great act of national charity, the principle for which the Northern dead had fought. In some sense, the introduction of fallen rebels to the rituals and monuments of national remembrance restored the bonds of brotherhood that secession had broken. 

It seems those bonds have been forgotten, if not dissolved. Five months ago, in an all-too-common act of quiet desecration, a contractor for the Department of Defense weaved a crane through the Southern graves to lift the statue from its place; it is the only memorial ever removed from the cemetery. For the first time in more than a century, Memorial Day will be observed with a gaping hole in one section of Arlington—in one section, that is, of our national memory.

That hole, of course, is far wider and deeper than the simple question of North and South. It is no mere reevaluation of the history of race that inspires such erasures; action on those grounds would have been taken years ago. The sudden iconoclasm can only be explained by a loss of the sense of patriotism, of purpose, that once gave meaning to that history. And how could it be otherwise? We are far removed not just from the ethos that once united even two sides in a war, but from all the trials and circumstances that formed it.

More than a century and a half has passed since American soldiers last laid down their lives in singular defense of the Constitution—and then in such great numbers that it cannot have been anything but transformative. In all of our Mideast wars since 1990 combined, fewer than 8,000 Americans have died in theater—each one a tragedy, of course, but in the aggregate not nearly so sweeping as to stiffen the civic sinews the way the Civil War once did. Even the flag-waving response to the attacks of September 11 has vanished almost entirely in less than a generation. We should pray that no great tragedy comes to shock us back into patriotism. But we cannot help but wonder whether our bonds—to each other and to our common past—are already more strained than those that birthed this holiday.

Only a nation can mourn its dead. Can we?

Top Photo: Ivan/Moment via Getty Images


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