Veteran’s Day, World War I and Civil War Historiography

by Johnny Whitewater on November 13, 2005 · 1 comment

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, formal hostilities during the Great War came to an end with the German signing of an armistice. Though the United States had not participated in the war to the same extent as European nations, Armistice Day immediately became a day of remembrance for the country, recognized as early as 1919 by President Wilson, and Armistice Day was made a holiday by the federal government in 1938.

Of course, an even greater war would break out one year later, involving a more direct American participation. Thus, in honor to include recognition of World War II veterans, “Armistice Day” was officially changed to “Veteran’s Day” in 1954. As noted in its Wikipedia entry, Veteran’s Day primarily celebrates the country’s living veterans, whereas Memorial Day recognizes its dead citizens.

Though Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day are now differentiated by the dead/alive dichotomy, Memorial Days were a staple of post Civil War America by the 1880s, honoring both the living and dead veterans. Most notably, Memorial Days and other forms of remembrance (public memorials) became one of the principal driving forces of sectional reconciliation.

As a sort of aside, I’d like to note that since Civil War historiography and memory studies are my niche, perhaps nobody is more excited than myself about Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog, which is exactly the type of project I would have taken up if I had the time and resources to fully devote to it. Tying into this entry, Levin recently posted an entry about David Blight’s book, Race and Reunion, which is the best Civil War memory study I have ever read, if not the best Civil War study I have ever read. Blight’s book demonstrates how reconciliation took shape, and Memorial Days and other forms of memorials make up a sizable portion of the book’s discussion.

Although states initially had their own Memorial Day remembrances, the remembrances as a whole stimulated a mostly collective desire in the North and South for sectional reconciliation. The main premise of Blight’s book is that the sectional reconciliation had the dual effect of glossing over black participation in the war, and it also disembodied the causes of the war from the valor and courage displayed by soldiers on both sides. By the turn of the century, President McKinley praised all Civil War soldiers in a speech for displaying “American valor.”

The sentiment displayed in the creation of Memorial Days for the Civil War vets had its most public display in the creation of monuments. The most notable example was the creation of Lee’s monument in Richmond; the New York Times called the memory of Lee a “national” possession, and Frederick Douglass found that he could “scarcely take up a newspaper…that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late Robert E. Lee.” Douglass’s view of Lee became (and remains) one in the small minority.

American participation in World War I itself also played a role in steering Civil War historiography along the same course that Memorial Days and sectional reconciliation had started it down. In addition to emphasizing nationalism, World War I fueled racism that had already been pervasive in American society, this time channeled mostly toward Germans, whether it was renaming German products or changing the pronunciation of places like New Berlin, Wisconsin.

The phenomenon continues, as the influence of these remembrances on public interpretation of the Civil War is still visible today. When individuals still argue over the causes of the War, attempting to disembody their relatives’ participation for the Confederacy from the perpetuation of slavery and racial hierarchy, and when politicians urge the public to support the war, implying that criticism emboldens enemies, the effects of Veteran’s Days, Memorial Days and other wars on Civil War historiography are still palpable. Moreover, these effects are not completely definable, and they’re certainly still debatable.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jim November 14, 2008 at 11:46 pm

Kevin Levin is truly an amateur of revisionist CW history. Over half of his blog posts are anti-southern, and Levin does not allow open relevant debate. If you are looking for a pro-Union, progressive, and revisionist blog, then Levin’s is an excellent start.

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