Remembrance of Things Past

At Harvard, deciding which war veterans to memorialize is anything but clear cut.


Perhaps it was Henry James who best captured the confusions of Harvard’s particular approach to commemorating its fallen graduates. In James’s novel “The Bostonians,” when Basil Ransom—Harvard alum, Civil War veteran, and classic Southern gentleman—strolls the grounds of his old alma mater with the alluring Verena Tarrant, they happen upon Memorial Hall. Opened for use in June 1874 as an architectural elegy to the recent Union victory, it makes sense—logically, at least—that Basil wouldn’t be able to find anywhere in the massive Gothic structure the names of the 71 fellow Harvard Confederates who died in Civil War combat. Verena, a young feminist from Boston, patronizingly reassures him that although his home state of Mississippi has effectively been erased from the institution’s memory, the structure nevertheless contains “great praise of our young men in the war.”

But Verena’s reliance on the idea of “our men” is more than playful indignance—essentially, it poses a question about the primary purpose of a war memorial at a place like Harvard. Indeed, should such a memorial commemorate a cause, and with it, a specific group of “our men” devoted to that cause? Or can a war memorial be about something larger than a particular ideology and commemorate the individuals who sacrificed their lives for any cause, regardless of what it might be?

At the moment, Harvard has yet to take a stand one way or the other.

Memorial Hall—as a monument to the Union—is a celebration of a particular cause and, as such, excludes the names of the Confederate soldiers Basil Ransom couldn’t find from its 28 white marble tablets. Across Cambridge Street, however, Memorial Church is essentially the opposite: “In grateful memory of the Harvard men who died in the World War we have built this Church,” reads the inscription over the south entrance of its memorial room.

In the church, at least, “the Harvard men who died in the World War”—or in any war since—does not necessarily mean those who died for the United States. Ostensibly a monument to all of Harvard’s fallen graduates, Memorial Church also honors the memory of four graduates who fought for Germany in World War I and, in quiet controversy, a Divinity School graduate who served in the German army in World War II. For many, the difference between Harvard’s two major war memorials—which, in simple terms, exclude Confederate soldiers while commemorating a Nazi one—is an inconsistency that the University would do well to address.


“The University needs to adopt a policy one way or the other,” says Alan M. Dershowitz, a professor at the Law School. “The current inconsistent standard is unacceptable, and it’s particularly unfortunate that the exception seems to be for a member of the Nazi army, one of the darkest regimes in human history, and a regime with which Harvard had too cozy a relationship.”


Given that Memorial Church commemorates a member of the Nazi army, many have felt over the years that the best solution to the current “inconsistent standard” is to include the names of the Confederate soldiers somewhere in Memorial Church, whose charter is not wedded to any cause other than Harvard’s fallen sons and, as of 2001, its daughters—the church also recognizes three Radcliffe women who served as nurses in World War I and died overseas.

But even before the dedication of Memorial Church in 1932, certain factions of the Harvard community voiced their sympathy for the Confederate graduates as far back as the Reconstruction period. As Helen P. Trimpi, GSAS ’66, a scholar of the period, points out in her recent book “Crimson Confederates: Harvard Men Who Fought for the South,” Memorial Hall’s first commencement dinner—held on June 24, 1874—included a speech that celebrated Confederate valor in a building dedicated to the ultimate victory of that valor’s opposition.

William F. Bartlett, Class of 1862 and Union army officer, warned against welcoming former Confederates with anything other than open arms:

“I firmly believe that when the gallant men of Lee’s army surrendered at Appomattox, touched by the delicate generosity of [Ulysses S.] Grant, who, obeying the dictates of his own honest heart, showed no less magnanimity than political sagacity, they followed the example of their heroic chief [Robert E. Lee],” he said. “Take care, then, lest you repel, by injustice, or suspicion, or even by indifference, the returning love of men who now speak with that pride as ‘our flag.’”

On Memorial Day 1884, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Class of 1861, echoed that sentiment. “Those who stood against us held just as sacred convictions that were the opposite of ours, and we respected them as every man with a heart must respect those who give all for their belief,” he told his audience in Keene, N.H.

As Trimpi’s research makes clear, the dawn of the 20th century—and the approaching 50th anniversary of the Civil War—ignited a heated debate over the contents of war memorials from which Harvard was not exempt.

President William F. McKinley, himself a former Union soldier, along with the United Daughters of the Confederacy, had pushed for a Confederate memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Charles F. Adams, also a Union officer and a member of the Class of 1856, referred to Lee in a 1907 West Point eulogy as “false to his flag” but ultimately loyal to “his State.”

In February 1909, the Harvard Bulletin attempted to make a complete list of the names of the University’s Confederate graduates. Even if these men weren’t honored in Memorial Hall, the Bulletin maintained, they were “none the less honored by their University as men who gave an overflowing measure of devotion and nobly did their duty as they saw it.”