Memorial Day is complicated. We honor not war but those who do not return from war.
How do we know that war itself is never a proper subject for celebration, on this day or any other? Here’s some help from Walt Whitman.
He was already 42 when the Civil War began. He didn’t fight but worked in army hospitals around Washington, D.C.
After the war ended in 1865 he wrote in his notebooks an entry called “the real war will never get into books.”
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Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the official surface-courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession war; and it is best they should not — the real war will never get in the books. In the mushy influences of current times, too, the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten.
I have at night watch’d by the side of a sick man in the hospital, one who could not live many hours. I have seen his eyes flash and burn as he raised himself and recurr’d to the cruelties on his surrender’d brother, and mutilations of the corpse afterward. (See in the preceding pages, the incident at Upperville — the seventeen kill’d as in the description, were left there on the ground. After they dropt dead, no one touch’d them — all were made sure of, however. The carcasses were left for the citizens to bury or not, as they chose.)
Such was the war. It was not a quadrille in a ball-room. Its interior history will not only never be written — its practicality, minutia; of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested. The actual soldier of 1862-’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his fierce friendship, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp, I say, will never be written — perhaps must not and should not be.
Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog. He’ll be the keynote speaker at the FCPA Blog NYC Conference 2016.