This weekend, Americans take an extra day to to enjoy life a little more in commemoration of a war that most of us will misidentify if asked. The world wars usually come up first in guesses, but the true origin of our Memorial Day, once called "Decoration Day," goes back to a war that both Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson had an opinion on: The American Civil War.
Over 600,000 Americans died in that war, mentioned in the thought-reading scene of "The Cardboard Box." (And later re-purposed and used in "The Resident Patient.") And John Watson, who is usually very careful not to reveal too much of his own life in his stories, lets us see much of his heart in letting Holmes demonstrate his own skills. And, yet . . . he's still John Watson, as mysterious as ever.
Watson thinks enough of Henry Ward Beecher to want to put his picture up with that of British war hero General Gordon (though, like Beecher, Gordon was a complicated fellow). Beecher's main claim to fame in England was as an emissary from Abraham Lincoln, attempting to sway European sympathies to the side of the North during the Civil War. John Watson, it would seem from that picture, sympathized with the North.
Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand?
"It does seem a most preposterous way of settling a dispute," Holmes says.
" . . . the gallantry that was shown on both sides . . ." Holmes says, echoing a particular modern quote that was not unrelated to American issues much like those of that earlier time.
Sherlock Holmes apparently thought that the issue of slavery could have been settled without a civil war, as Britain did, and that Americans on both sides of the question showed bravery in giving their lives for . . . wait a minute, didn't he just say it was preposterous?
"I remember your passionate indignation at the way he was received by the more turbulent of our people," Holmes recollects of some earlier discussion with Watson about Beecher. Since that reception was in 1863, the topic more likely came up just after March 8, 1887, when Beecher's death brought him back to relevance for a moment. For something that happened fifteen years before Watson graduated medical school, one has to suspect that young John had been present for one of Henry Ward Beecher's pro-Union speeches, and witnessed firsthand the angry Britons who were against him.
There's a lot going on in the few short paragraphs of Holmes's little mind-reading trick. Had he and Watson gotten into the full causes of the American Civil War and possible corrections to history to keep it from being "preposterous," there would have hardly been room for severed ear or tenant doctor tales to follow. But it's still good for us to think about the ramifications of, especially on this particular Memorial Day, when America almost seems as divided as it did before the war that the day was spawned from.
Memory is a good thing to use now and again. Especially this weekend.