I visited my father’s grave at the veterans cemetery in Windsor the other day. He had been in the Army Air Corps during the second world war. I realized that we spoke very little about his military time in Europe during the fight against fascism.
That’s the purpose of collective remembrance on Memorial Day, I guess: discovering and retelling the stories that shed light on wars and the soldiers who fight them. “No holidays, no country,” wrote novelist and poet Toba Beta. Since memories can tie us together (or divide us) as a nation, it’s important to get them right.
Memory must be accompanied by reckoning. Suppressing uncomfortable stories or obscuring ugly facts about our history does no justice to understanding the past. Yale historian David W. Blight calls for the defense of history against a newly energized right-wing attack, urging us to be “citizen teachers fighting structured ignorance and political venality.”
Memorial Day’s reckoning should follow in the same vein. From the Civil War until today, there is much more to be acknowledged about this particular holiday:
–The first Memorial Day, according to Blight, was actually a commemoration by African American soldiers at the end of the Civil War. In May, 1865, a Black regiment accepted the formal surrender of Charleston, South Carolina. Soon after, thousands of Black soldiers and civilians marched through the streets, celebrating the “death of slavery” and “their own festival of freedom,” as Blight described it.
The local Confederate military prison was demolished and rebuilt into a cemetery for the Union dead. Their graves were decorated with a “mass” of spring flowers that covered the bare ground. Groups like the Daughters of the Confederacy did their best to erase and replace this solemn but joyous event by honoring the “lost cause” instead.
–Harry Bendell of Hartford spent his Memorial Day in 1932 organizing other World War I veterans. Bendell was a Jewish Russian immigrant who had volunteered for the Navy when the U.S. first entered the war. He was disabled as a result of his service. Now he was an unemployed carpenter suffering through the Great Depression like millions of other workers. Congress had voted to give veterans a bonus, but the payout was not scheduled for another 13 years. A mass movement of veterans, led by men like Harry, were demanding the bonus immediately.
Two weeks later hundreds of World War I veterans left Connecticut to join 45,000 other vets and their families in Washington D.C. Some ex-servicemen contrasted their desperate plight with the arms manufacturers who had made billions of dollars during the slaughter in Europe. Arthur Pease, a resident of the Newington veterans hospital, called industrialists “a despicable group of citizenry who waxed rich while America’s manhood groveled in the filth and corruption of the battlefield.”
After living for two months in their tent city, the families were rousted by General Douglas MacArthur, who led troops with bayonets and tear gas to burn the Bonus camp down. The vets finally won their objective in 1936 over the veto of President Franklin Roosevelt;
–During the 1960s and 70s, Memorial Day became a flashpoint for the Vietnam War. In 1969 a group called “Clergy and Laity Concerned” planned an event at the Torrington town park to memorialize the war’s 33,000 casualties. They proposed to read all the names aloud over two days. They invited the celebrated authors (and local residents) Arthur Miller and William Styron. In Winsted, clergy read the names of the 455 servicemen from Connecticut who had been killed. In both cases, town politicians and veterans’ groups angrily opposed the events, charging that reading the names would “make a mockery” of the holiday;
At a 1970 town hall rally in Simsbury, a minister charged that anti-war opposition was “just as evil a force as the enemy.” Richard Nixon, who had expanded the war to Cambodia, should be trusted since the president was “in possession of more facts than we are.” The preacher told several hundred spectators that dissenters were “slapping our dead in the face;”
In East Hartford, the American Legion removed a local state legislator as keynote speaker because she voted against their 1971 “Misuse of the Flag” law. The wrong-headed legislation, the lawmaker pointed out, would have provided a harsher penalty for disrespecting the American flag than for someone caught building home-made bombs. A group of young people organized a boycott of the parade in protest of the legislator’s ban.
These are just a few examples of how contentious our history can be. If we ignore them we are destined to repeat the annual mourning rituals, even as the casualties from new wars continue to rise. Is there something we can learn from this day about civilian deaths, the bloated military budget, and the cost to our democracy? Or are we simply satisfied with having new names to read every year on the town green?
Steve Thornton writes for The Shoeleather History Project, stories from Hartford’s grassroots.