Remembrance of Things Past

Perhaps it was Henry James who best captured the confusions of Harvard’s particular approach to commemorating its fallen graduates. In ...
By James K. McAuley

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.”

Given the apparent popularity of those sentiments even in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the question of whether to establish a Harvard Confederate war memorial naturally arose. Trimpi’s research indicates that many, like Frederick J. Ranlett, Class of 1880, felt that a small plaque in Memorial Hall placed near a bust of Bartlett—a Union soldier with the compassion to care about his enemies—would be the most appropriate.

Others, however, vehemently disagreed. Angry letters arrived on campus in droves, and powerful, wealthy alums voiced their displeasure at the prospect of a Confederate memorial anywhere on Harvard’s campus. Ultimately, the University took no action, although peer institutions did—according to Trimpi, Yale, for instance, mixed 55 Confederate names with 113 Union ones in a 1919 memorial, and Princeton did the same.


Of course, one might say that the argument for commemorating Harvard’s Confederate graduates would have faded away long ago were there not another space on campus where enemy soldiers—and especially one associated with a regime that facilitated the Holocaust—were memorialized in public view.

According to the Reverend Peter J. Gomes, the architects of the church intended for it to be construed not as a monument to victory like its counterpart across Cambridge Street but to war’s human sacrifice.

“It was supposed to stand for certain ideas and ideals, and even though the German ideals were mistaken, they were the same kind of ideals,” he says. Even still, he adds, President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, was not exactly in love with the idea of commemorating World War I German soldiers, no matter how open the new church’s environment was supposed to be. Although Harvard’s Board of Preachers was ultimately successful in convincing President Lowell that the new church ought to be a memorial to Harvard’s war dead in the most welcoming sense, Gomes said that the actual composition of the German World War I memorial indicates Lowell’s unease. After all, it consists of a smaller, less visible plaque written in Latin to lower its visibility.

However, the name of Adolf Sannwald, the Divinity School graduate who was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1942, could not be more visible. Unlike the other German soldiers commemorated in the church, Sannwald’s name is mixed in with all of Harvard’s other World War II casualties. Although the phrase “enemy casualty” accompanies his name, an implicit celebration of his life and sacrifice is on full display. Unveiled on Veterans Day 1951, the Memorial Church World War II memorial was almost immediately criticized. The Crimson claimed that the inclusion of Sannwald’s name was inconsistent with the memorial’s goal, especially given that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, a fellow Harvard graduate involved in the attack on Pearl Harbor, was not included.

When asked about this apparent omission, Gomes said that he has no idea why Yamamoto’s name would not have been included if Sannwald’s was.

“I don’t know whether there was a policy or inadvertence or discrimination,” he says. “There was a popular American conception that the Germans were a nobler adversary than the Japanese, a kind of racism, and I don’t know whether that played a part in this or not.”

As soon as 1952, the Harvard Corporation—the University’s highest governing body—issued a statement: “The inclusion of the name of an alumnus who served in the German Army was an error and will be corrected.” That “error” has yet to be addressed fifty-eight years later. Now, of course, the question is whether it still should be.

After all, little is known about the extent to which Sannwald was actually complicit with the Nazi regime and its fascist project. He left Harvard for Germany in 1925, married, fathered five children, and wrote one book on German idealism currently buried in Widener Library. For all we know, he could have remained a quiet Lutheran pastor until his conscription in 1942.

Gomes believes that he was ultimately conscripted because he spoke out against the regime, which is why he was shipped off to the Eastern front to die in the first place. Christopher R. Browning, a prominent Holocaust historian at the University of North Carolina, said that from what little evidence is available, Sannwald can’t quite be considered an enthusiastic Nazi. According to Browning, Sannwald, as a member of the Confessing Church, was clearly engaged in a theological dispute with the Protestant Church against complete Nazification. “The genocidal evidence isn’t there yet,” Browning says.

But Sannwald’s archived file raises questions about such claims to his innocence. After all, as The Crimson uncovered in 2003, Sannwald invited Divinity School Dean Willard L. Sperry to Nazi Germany to witness first-hand “the wonderful rebirth the nation was having under Hitler.”

“If the idea here is that soldiers are all comrades,” says Daniel J. Goldhagen ’81, author of “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” and former associate professor in both the social studies and government departments, “the fact is that the German army refused itself to recognize this camaraderie of soldiers. It starved and shot more than two million Russian POWs during the war, which, from this perspective, makes the honoring of this soldier the most dubious of all honorings one could imagine.”

“People knew what it meant to be a part of that army. You didn’t have to stay there,” says Stephen H. Norwood, a historian at the University of Oklahoma who has written widely on the subject of Nazi complicity on American college campuses: “How any human being could participate in the Nazi army is just beyond my understanding.” With regard to whether the name should stay, Norwood answers emphatically, “It should be removed.”


Even though Harvard long ago decided not to commemorate its 71 Confederate casualties in any official sense, the cause has not been forgotten.

This year, the Southern Legal Resource Center, a non-profit legal organization based in South Carolina that is “waging a counter-offensive to preserve Southern heritage,” has launched “The Harvard Confederate Memorial Initiative,” a drive to inspire the University to commemorate its fallen Confederate sons. According to Executive Director Roger W. McCredie, the group learned of the situation in early March after the publication of Trimpi’s book and after having been approached by several Harvard alums.

He also said that the Center first launched a Facebook petition that now has over 100 signatures before it decided to work through certain chapters of the Harvard Alumni Association.

McCredie’s group has designed a particular logo for their new initiative—one that probably won’t win it many supporters in the Harvard community. The graphic consists of the Harvard crest, half in black and half in “Stars and Bars,” and the word “pietas” replaces the word “Veritas” divided among the three open books. But McCredie doesn’t seem too worried about the impact the Confederate imagery may have on his cause.

“If you want to talk slavery, we can talk slavery all day long and about how no one’s hands are clean from it—including the Fanueil family and the Brown family, both of whom made fortunes on the slave trade,” he says. “This extremely skewed view of history and of historical perspective has become pandemic—it does not infect merely Harvard; it infects the entire educated and cultural edifice of the United States these days.”

“South equal bad,” he adds. “North equal good.”

Historical precedent is certainly not on the side of this movement; the idea of establishing a Confederate memorial came up in 1936 during the University’s Tercentenary, in the mid-1960s during the Civil War’s centennial, again at the University’s 350th anniversary in 1986, and, most recently, in 1995, when Memorial Church underwent major renovations. None of these movements ultimately led anywhere.

“We do this Southern Heritage thing for a living, and we are enough of realists to know that we can’t presume to dictate policy to Harvard University. All we can do is in effect make suggestions,” McCredie says, like the letter McCredie sent to Gomes in April of the past year.

“Their concept of ‘Veritas’ may not have jibed with that of their Union counterparts, but they acted on it in good faith and paid a soldier’s price for doing so,” McCredie wrote of Harvard’s Confederates in the letter. Before the end, he quotes Yeats—“We know their dream enough/to know they dreamed, and are dead”—before asking Gomes to help Harvard heal some long-held bitterness by commemorating its fallen Confederates.

“They deserve no less,” he wrote. “We ask no more.”

As of now, he has yet to receive a reply.