President Abraham Lincoln, on November 19, 1863, charged the American people to dedicate themselves to a “great task.” “…That from these honored dead,” Lincoln urged, “we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion-that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln spoke those words while dedicating the new soldiers’ cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Lincoln’s address was short; only 275 words. Astonishingly, he was not even the event’s featured speaker. But the now-famous Gettysburg Address was perhaps the most insightful commentary ever delivered on the nature of America, and the unique cause for which her soldiers fought, and continue to fight.
We observe Memorial Day in remembrance of those men and women who have fallen in our service. Not in the country’s service, but ours. All of us. For what is the country if not its people? Certainly, we share an identity as Americans and that identity is shaped by ideals millennia in the making. But those ideals are just words on a piece of paper if the people do not live them.
Our country, our people, are more divided now than we have been since Lincoln’s days. Ethically challenged power brokers seek to maintain that division and exploit it further. The irony is that the very liberty bought with the blood of generations protects their ability to do so. As Lincoln noted, “Our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to a proposition that all men are created equal.”
But that liberty has always carried a price. The American Revolution began with an exchange of gunfire at Lexington Green on April 19, 1775. The first bill came due that day, and 49 Americans paid it in full. They paid it before their country was even an independent nation. Many more followed.
Barely four months before Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, over 50,000 men, and at least 3 women, fell there in three days of brutal fighting. 7,056 men and 2 women never got back up. The American Civil War was, in many ways, the first modern war. The carnage was unprecedented, and still unequaled in American history. We should be thankful for that last.
The traditions that evolved into Memorial Day began almost immediately after the Civil War ended. Families and communities visited and left flowers at the graves of fallen loved ones, often picnicking nearby. On May 5, 1868, former Union General John A Logan called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. He proposed May 30 since it did not coincide with the date of a particular battle, thus making it for all who had fallen.
The holiday was called Decoration Day, and President James Garfield spoke to 5,000 people at the recently opened Arlington National Cemetery. The cemetery’s 20,000 Union war graves were decorated by the participants in keeping with the day’s purpose. Each Northern state had made Decoration Day an official holiday by 1890.
The former Confederate states observed a similar holiday on separate days until after World War I. Richmond, Virginia’s Hollywood Cemetery, the resting place of many former Confederates, was a particularly popular destination. Families and residents often picnicked weekly while tending the graves. While not as large or solemn as Arlington, Hollywood is still a serene and beautiful setting in the city’s midst.
Decoration Day gradually became known as Memorial Day in both the North and South. The First World War’s aftermath finally ended the regional observances, and Memorial Day became a true national holiday. It continued to be observed on May 30 until Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, giving federal workers three-day weekends. Memorial Day changed to the last Monday in May beginning in 1971.
An Observance…Not a Celebration
For many people, Memorial Day is merely the three-day weekend that kicks off summer. Many pools and beaches are officially open for business. It’s the first big barbecuing weekend of the year. And that’s alright. American liberty’s basic foundation is individual freedom. Freedom to get together and enjoy friends and family. Memorial Day weekend is a great time to get out and do American stuff.
But unfortunately, many have forgotten how that liberty was purchased. I partially blame the severe decline of civics education in American schools. I can say that with some authority because I’m a former history teacher. I’ll leave it there before I descend into a “get off my lawn” style diatribe. I will merely say that we observe Memorial Day. We do not celebrate it.
Memorial Day is set aside, as it was in 1868, to remember and reflect on the sacrifices made in defense of our people and way of life over the last 248 years. We can and should celebrate gallantry, even in death, but each of those deaths is a tragedy, for the individual, the family, the community, and ultimately, we as an entire people. In many ways, we have lost the best of us. We cannot celebrate that. But we must remember and honor it.
Lest We Forget
Lincoln, as usual, said it best. His words referenced the Gettysburg battlefield, but they are easily extrapolated to include every field on which Americans fought and died, here and abroad. “…We can not dedicate-we can not consecrate-we can not hallow-this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
I sometimes look despairingly at our increasingly divided nation. It seems we are no longer one people. As a history guy, I was asked a few years ago what period of history most reminded me of our current situation. I thought for a moment and responded, “the late 1850s.” That was in 2018. Before COVID. Before all the upheavals of 2020 and 2021. I haven’t changed my mind.
But I also wonder whether this is what those men and women died for. Liberty, yes. Freedom to express ourselves, absolutely. To believe as we wish, of course. But also, to understand that liberty, properly exercised, requires responsibility and respect. It seems we, as a people, have forgotten that. For many of us, being responsible has morphed into having to be “right,” no matter what. We have to be right, even if we’re wrong.
We’re all about our individual liberty, perhaps more than ever. But we have forgotten, or chosen to forget, that untold gallons of blood not only bought that liberty, but also, by its very example, the responsibility that goes with it. We have done so at our peril.
This Memorial Day, let us remember those who gave what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.” Let us also remember why they gave that last full measure. Individual soldiers have their own reasons for serving and, when it comes to it, fighting. But whether they realize it or not, American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen have always fought, ultimately, for the ideals expressed in our Declaration of Independence. Mainly that all people-ALL PEOPLE-are created equal. Those ideals set us apart. They always have. We, AS A PEOPLE, must not forget that, nor must we forget the steep price we have paid for it. Are we still, as Lincoln charged us, “dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced?” I hope so.