Commemoration and Public Ritual

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Commemoration and Public Ritual. The memory of past wars has played a central role in creating and defining American national identity. After the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Independence Day became the new republic's preeminent national holiday, even before the United States won the armed struggle against Great Britain. Neither the Continental Congress nor succeeding federal Congresses ever mandated rituals for the day, but certain patterns emerged culturally that lasted into the twentieth century. In many communities, Fourth of July observances centered on public orations, readings of the Declaration of Independence, religious services, parades, public dinners, and fireworks. Local governments often sponsored Independence Day ceremonies, but this was by no means universal.

The Fourth of July has often been contested as dominant and dissenting groups have created rituals to bolster their ideologies and social positions. During the 1790s, for example, Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans held separate, competing celebrations. Whereas Federalists went so far as to drop the reading of the Declaration of Independence in order to diminish Thomas Jefferson's crucial role, Republicans made the reading of this text a central part of their ceremonies.

During the nineteenth century, especially in larger urban centers, the Independence Day parade developed into a broad‐based celebration that included virtually every major group in the locality. Strong traditions of popular participation still fostered dissenting groups' tendencies to use Fourth of July ceremonies to advance their aims. Ethnic, religious, labor, and other groups commonly sponsored their own observances. Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Charles Sumner, and other speakers used Independence Day orations to protest injustices; such speeches were frequently published, thus reaching substantial regional and national audiences.

The militia also played an important ritualistic role in the commemoration of the Revolution, especially on Independence Day. Militia units, particularly elite volunteer regiments, used the occasion to march in parades and display their military prowess and social standing. In the 1820s and 1830s, volunteer militia staged some of the first reenactments of Revolutionary battles.

To honor and later memorialize George Washington and successive generations of war leaders, Americans created a range of holidays, many of them transitory. As early as the 1780s, Americans commemorated the birth of Washington. During his presidency, Federalists lit bonfires and held balls in his honor, carrying over earlier British practices of honoring the birthday of the sovereign. Jeffersonian Republicans disapproved; only after the demise of the Federalist Party in the 1820s did Washington's Birthday observances lose their partisanship and evolve into the permanent holiday that eventually gained federal recognition. Later in the nineteenth century, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and George Dewey all had their birthdays or other days associated with them commemorated. Jackson Day, celebrating his victory at the Battle of New Orleans on 8 January 1815, was always a partisan affair. Lee's and Davis's birthdays remained southern holidays, while Lincoln's birthday too had regional overtones; most southern states never made it an official holiday.

The passing of the Revolutionary generation in the 1820s and 1830s gave impetus to the creation of new forms of commemoration. By the antebellum period, monuments—controversial in the 1790s because of their association with monarchical Europe—became widely accepted. Usually funded by private organizations, the inauguration and completion of such monuments could be marked by lavish celebrations. In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette laid the cornerstone of many Revolutionary memorials, including the Bunker Hill Obelisk.

The Civil War led to a democratization and an emphasis on rituals that remembered the sacrifice of average citizen‐soldiers. In both North and South during the late 1860s, cemeteries became the focal point of a new holiday—Memorial Day, often known as Decoration Day. This holiday, which developed concurrently in both regions, centered on decorating the graves of the war dead with flowers and holding religious services, parades, and other ceremonies. Veterans' organizations, especially the Grand Army of the Republic, played a crucial role in organizing and promoting these observances.

Reconciliation, but also continued sectional bitterness, emerged as competing themes in the rituals commemorating the Civil War. Memorial Day orators often stressed the need to honor the fallen from both sides and early accounts of the holiday emphasized decorating the graves of soldiers, regardless of the army in which they fought. Nonetheless, in the North, the Memorial Day observance took place on 30 May whereas most Southerners (except for African Americans) commemorated Confederate Memorial Day on varying dates in the spring. Ladies' Memorial Associations and later the Daughters of the Confederacy played a crucial role in organizing Confederate holiday activities.

Most Civil War veterans never joined any veterans' organization, but a significant number became members of either the Grand Army of the Republic or the United Confederate Veterans, the two dominant societies to emerge after the war. Encampments on old battlefields or in or near major cities remained a central activity for these organizations. “Blue‐Gray” reunions, joint gatherings of participants from opposing armies, began as early as the 1870s, but took place with greater frequency during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Participants in the Battle of Gettysburg gathered under federal sponsorship on its fiftieth and seventy‐fifth anniversaries. Both Woodrow Wilson (1913) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1938) addressed these reunions, stressing national unity and sectional reconciliation.

In the late nineteenth century, federal and state governments joined private organizations in sustained, if uncoordinated, efforts to preserve battlefields, homes, and other sites associated with past American wars. Under pressure from veterans' organizations, the federal government began acquiring Civil War battlefields. During the twentieth century, while continuing to purchase Civil War sites, congress added locations associated with the Revolutionary War, The War of 1812, and Indian wars to a growing list of national military parks. These sites had already been important places for memorial services, reunions, and tourism, and the National Park Service, from the 1930s onward, promoted their use for a range of ceremonies, including battlefield reenactments.

After World War I, members of both major political parties sought to diminish ethnic, racial, class, and gender divisions by instituting national rituals of remembrance. In response to a conflict marked by antiwar resistance and an ambiguous peace, these commemorative activities were intended to reassure Americans that the United States's participation in the war had been necessary. As in the post–Civil War era, the war dead remained a central symbol. The federal government maintained cemeteries and monuments in Europe, but also responded to pressures from families and localist groups by allowing next‐of‐kin to decide whether the fallen should be repatriated or remain in these newly created overseas burial grounds.

To represent the sacrifice of the average soldier, Congress followed British and other European precedents in authorizing the burial of an Unknown Soldier in a place of honor in Arlington National Cemetery. The remains of unknown soldiers from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War have since been interred there. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, visited by presidents and other high officials to lay wreaths and to participate in ceremonies at the Arlington National Amphitheater, has become an important site of commemorative ritual.

In the 1920s, Armistice Day emerged as holiday to mark the anniversary of the end of World War I, and an occasion to honor not only the fallen but all of the veterans who had served. The American Legion promoted community observances, including parades, orations, and memorial services; many citizens joined veterans in observing two minutes of silence on the eleventh of hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to mark the exact time the war ended and to mourn its dead. In 1938, the American Legion convinced Congress to make Armistice Day an official federal holiday.

Despite its epic nature, World War II led to few significant changes in the American pattern of remembrance. Only Arkansas and Rhode Island made V‐J Day—the anniversary of the end of the conflict—into a holiday. Renamed Veterans' Day, Armistice Day evolved in the 1940s and 1950s into a holiday that honored veterans of all wars.

The post–World War II era witnessed a decline in public rituals centered on remembrance of the past. The concurrent growth of suburbia, the mass media (especially television), and a consumer culture all diminished attendance at public commemorative events. In 1968, Congress recognized the fact that holidays had become days of leisure and consumption by decreeing that the official celebrations of civic holidays, except for Independence Day and Thanksgiving, would take place on the Monday nearest their customary dates. In the 1970s, veterans' groups successfully lobbied Congress and state legislatures to return the commemoration of Veterans' Day to 11 November.

Meanwhile, the federal government under took a more active role in planning and organizing commemorative rituals. Created in 1957, the Civil War Centennial Commission sponsored national commemorations and encouraged states and local communities to organize their own observances. Controversy embroiled this commission, especially over its policy of segregation in the South and the widespread use of battlefield reenactments to mark major events of the war. Critics assailed the commission, as well as a number of state and local organizations, for commercializing centennial activities. Even under nationally organized commissions, however, localist traditions still predominated: the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, for instance, maintained that its central role was to encourage state and local community observances.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Americans memorialized the Vietnam War in monuments that rejected classicism and embraced modernism, as well as a more pluralistic depiction of American society. Critics, especially on the right, often derided these memorials as “anti‐monuments.” Maya Lin's highly influential design—two stark black granite walls inscribed with the names of all those killed in Vietnam—for the national Vietnam Veterans' Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., aroused considerable opposition. Critics forced the addition in 1984 of a more traditional statue and a flagpole. Even after its dedication in 1982, controversy still dogged the Vietnam Memorial over its failure to recognize the contribution of women. Responding to appeals from women veterans, Congress mandated in 1989 that a statue honoring their service be added to the memorial. Despite such criticism, the Vietnam Memorial emerged in the 1980s as one of most visited sites in the nation's capital. The scores of poems, letters, and artifacts left each day by visitors testify to the monument's power to evoke collective and personal grief.

As America entered the closing decade of the twentieth century, a renewed interest in both rituals and monuments emerged. In the late 1980s, a number of communities staged long‐delayed welcome home parades for Vietnam veterans. After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, several major cities held victory parades to honor both the combatants of this conflict and those who served in Vietnam. Responding to the success of the Vietnam Memorial, the American Battle Monuments Commission received congressional authorization for a national Korean War Veterans' Memorial in 1995, also in the Mall in Washington. A monument commemorating World War II is proposed for completion by the close of the twentieth century.
[See also Battlefields, Encampments, and Forts as Public Sites; Cemeteries, Military; Culture, War, and the Military; Patriotism.]


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Jan C. Scruggs and and Joel L. Swerdlow , To Heal a Nation: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1985.
Susan G. Davis , Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth‐Century Philadelphia, 1986.
Gaines M. Foster , Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865–1913, 1987.
Edward Tabor Linenthal , Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields, 1991.
John Bodnar , Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, 1992.
Garry Wills , Lincoln at Gettysburg, 1992.
Jim Cullen , The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past, 1995.
G. Kurt Piehler , Remembering War the American Way, 1995.

G. Kurt Piehler