‘Never Trumpet War as Glorious’: The History of Memorial Day


520px-Sandham_1Bruce Catton, The American Heritage New History of the Civil War. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On May 30, 1868, a reunited, post–Civil War America held its first nationwide Memorial Day to commemorate the lives sacrificed on both sides. The practice of memorializing fallen soldiers by laying floral wreaths and garlands on their graves had started during the war, with “the ladies of the South,” a New York Times reporter stationed in Richmond explained. He went on to object to those first Memorial Day festivities in a way that may resonate today, as many Americans seem more inclined to celebrate the start of the summer barbeque season than to consider the cost of war: “These occasions are sort of May-Day festivals, gotten up more for the benefit of the living than in any real reverence for the memory of the departed,” he wrote. “They do not serve the dead any good purpose, for they neither feed their widows nor clothe and protect their orphans.”

A century and a half later, the tombs of fallen soldiers that we decorate with flags and wreaths on the last Monday each May have multiplied, and they hold women as well as men. At least 161 American servicewomen have died in combat in the 21st century, a number certain to be dwarfed as women’s military roles expand. For Memorial Day 2016 comes on the heels of two historic decisions in the history of women and war: Six months ago, in December, the Pentagon announced that all combat roles would be open to women. Earlier this month, on May 12, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a proposal that would require women to register for the Selective Service, making them eligible for the draft should the country again turn to conscription.  

The complete sexual integration of the Armed Forces is controversial, to say the least. (Indeed, on May 17, House Republicans stripped a provision from the annual defense policy bill that would have required young women to sign up for a military draft. According to The New York Times, “Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, said he is ‘adamantly opposed to coercing America’s daughters to sign up for the Selective Service at 18 years of age.’”)

There’s a long history of people, of both sexes, who consider the introduction of women into historically male spheres a threat to traditions of masculinity and femininity—civilization as we know it. As one member of the currently all-male Special Operations Command said, in response to the Pentagon decision, “It’s a slap in the face telling us that chicks can do our jobs.”

This isn’t the first time a female draft was proposed, but it seems far more likely to become a reality now. After women gained access to such elite military training institutes as Annapolis and West Point in the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter proposed adding them to the draft rolls. James Webb, later the secretary of the navy and a U.S. senator (and presidential candidate), responded with an inflammatory article called “Women Can’t Fight,” in which he derided the abilities not only of women but also, inadvertently, of men, by seeming to consider it impossible that male soldiers might react to integration in any other way than by falling apart. Many of the arguments against women in the military have since been debunkedincluding the fear that they would lose workdays because of menstruation and pregnancy. Men, it turns out, lose twice as many days due to problems with drug and alcohol abuse as women soldiers do to pregnancy.

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RELATED: “Memorial Day: Remembering the Women” 

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  • Marc Charnow June 5, 2016 at 11:30 am

    Objections to women in combat typically relate to questioning their physical readiness, but often reveal another prejudice — that “ladies shouldn’t have to see the horrors of war.” That war is a dark, horrific side of humanity only to be witnessed by men of hardy constitution. Allowing women to choose to battle is really about Pro Choice, personal freedom and the right to decide one’s own destiny, which, ironically, are often the very principles that wars are fought to secure. I would just add that in terms of witnessing the horrors of war, thousands of women served as nurses in the Civil War. They were not dressing knee scrapes and surface wounds. It was as gruesome as it gets.

    Thanks for a great essay, Amy.

  • Stephen Brewer June 2, 2016 at 1:56 am

    Your fact-filled essay is thought-provoking. While we do think of Memorial Day as the start of summer, the holiday’s real purpose is not entirely forgotten. To me the day is the equivalent of those memorials you come across in every French village, filled with names and inscribed “Mort pour la France.” They seem a bit out of context today but are stark reminders of sacrifice. I was jolted into a new reality when I met a beautiful young woman at a party who told me she’d been in Afghanistan for two years. Being thick, I asked her if she worked for a relief agency and she nicely explained that she was an Army captain in command of a combat unit.

  • Esther Rosenfeld June 1, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    Very fact filled, and left me wondering about what kind of feminist I am. I shudder at the idea of my granddaughters being conscripted.
    But your point about honoring the dead on Memorial Day is right on!
    I agree with what Michelle wrote – need to develop conscienceless about this early on. Certainly got me thinking.

  • Olly June 1, 2016 at 11:02 am

    Wonderful article, Amy!

  • Michelle Hughes June 1, 2016 at 8:04 am

    An excellent article with a unique angle on Memorial Day. Teachers addressing the topics of the Civil War and women’s rights should include this in their class readings. We did!