Susan-Mary Grant: America's Cult of the War Dead

Roundup: Talking About History

A "cult of the war dead," particularly of killed volunteers, evolved in the United States well before such a cult arose in Europe, and it found expression in the development of national cemeteries devoted to war veterans and to the idea of America as a nation, writes Susan-Mary Grant, a reader in American history at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, in England.

She argues that in America, more than anywhere else, the war dead are a crucial part of nationalism. The cult of the war dead, she writes, arose in response to how the Civil War prompted Americans to feel an "attachment to, and reverence for, the land and a clear awareness of the ancient roots of redemptive sacrifice as a means of consecrating that land for the nation." Civil War-era Americans in the North and the South drew from "an Athenian past that was not their own," she writes, as they constructed monuments and memorials in cemeteries, in communities, and on battlefields.

As it developed, the cult of the war dead had distinctly American facets -- for example, it paralleled and was reinforced by the "cult of the fallen president" -- and it found form in national expressions of Americans' beliefs about themselves, such as Memorial Day, which came to serve as "an American sacred ceremony with clear parallels with the later Armistice Day ceremonies in Europe."

During the Civil War, writes Ms. Grant, elements of the cult of the war dead emerged that became prominent at the end of World War I, such as "the relationship between the soldier and the nation; the importance, indeed the pressing urge, to repatriate the dead, to provide for them honorable sepulture in the nation's name; to acknowledge, as Lincoln did at Gettysburg, that they had died so that the 'nation might live.'"

Bringing the blood sacrifice into the national myth took some doing because the Confederate dead were excluded from national cemeteries, Ms. Grant says. It was possible only "at the cost of incorporating the Confederate memorialization process into the national story," one where nationalism was of key importance.

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