It is a time for beach-going. It is a time for bike riding. It is a time for barbecuing. Memorial Day is all that and much more.
Memorial Day is a day on which Americans unite anew to remember those who gave their lives in war. The memory of those who lost their lives nourishes the vision that inspires the current generation of Americans to work to avoid war’s recurrence. That memory is what ties all Americans–past, present, and future–together as one united people.
Although Memorial Day was proclaimed in 1950 by President Harry Truman, its roots go back to the aftermath of the American Civil War. The very first ceremonies took place in the former Confederate States on April 26, 1866, little more than one year after General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at the Appomattox Court House.
Those simple ceremonies gained national newspaper coverage. For example, on May 9, 1866, the Washington, DC National Intelligencer reported, “On Thursday, the 26th ult., the ladies throughout many portions of the Southern States took occasion to deck with flowers the graves of the Confederate dead. That this tribute was, in many cases, paid to the Union as well as the Confederate soldiers is shown by extracts which we publish from Southern Papers.” The newspaper went on to praise the “honorable” example of those women in “contrast to the conduct of those who… strive to keep up and inflame the passions of the people of both sections of the Union.”
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic issued “General Order Number 11” proclaiming May 30, 1868 “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades, who died in defense, of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every City, Village, and hamlet, church yard in the land.” This day would become known as Decoration Day. Decoration Day would become a national holiday in 1918 following President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation of May 11 of that year.
As the nation remembers its war dead some 150 years later, it is worth looking back at the May 30, 1868 ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. The Cemetery was formerly the estate of Robert E. Lee. General James A. Garfield, who went on to become the 20th President of the United States, provided the oration. In his address, he described the heroism of the nation’s soldiers. He spoke about how they gave their lives to secure the life of the nation.
Excerpts from his speech, which was published in its entirety in the June 3, 1868 edition of the Cleveland Daily Herald follow:
If silence is ever golden it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung… We do not know one promise that these men made, one pledge that they gave, one word that they spoke, but we do know that they summed up and perfected by one supreme act the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death. That act resolved all doubts and made immortal their patriotism and virtue…
What brought these men here? What motive led them to condense life into an hour, and to crown that hour by joyfully welcoming death?
The nation was summoned by every high motive that can inspire men. Two centuries of freedom had rendered the people of this continent unfit for despotism. They must save their government or have none…
These men each for himself, gathered up all the cherished purposes of life, its aims and ambitions, its dearest affections, and flung all, with life itself, into the wild whirlwind of war. In the dark days of 1862 a new element was added to the conflict, an element which filled the army with solemn but intense religious enthusiasm. By many unmistakable signs the nation was taught that God had indissolubly linked to our own the destiny of an enslaved race—that their liberty and our Union were, indeed, one and inseparable…
Your country lives because you died; your fame is placed where the breath of calumny can never reach it; where the mistake of a weary life can never dim its brightness. Coming generations will rise up and call you blessed…
Inspired with sacred and affectionate reverence, pilgrims shall gather here from every corner of the continent to pay their tribute of gratitude to the memory of these dead defenders. For that purpose we are met today. The cherishing earth offers her floral gifts. We come with gratitude for these victors.
This Memorial Day, we remember the heroes who delivered the nation from peril time and again so that our country could live and so that liberty would not die. We honor the men and women who still serve today at home and abroad. Without their courage, commitment, and sacrifice, we would not enjoy the life we live in the freedom we cherish.
Photo By: Chris Erbe