The day we celebrate as Memorial Day this year will find Americans having picnics, shopping the seemingly unending Memorial Day Sale Events. A few of us will visit a cemetery where a veteran of some war is buried. This should be a day of solemn remembrance of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
The day we call Memorial Day started out as a day to encourage local communities to place flowers of the graves of the war dead after the civil war. The origin of this day seems to have its genesis from a visit to a Confederate cemetery by the wife of a Union general. In the spring of 1868, the wife of Maj. Gen. John Alexander “Black Jack” Logan accompanied Gen. William T. Sherman on a tour of southern battlefields of the civil war. She noticed everywhere she went that the Confederate graves were decorated with flowers, and she thought that should be done for the Union Army’s fallen soldiers as well. She suggested as much to her husband, and Gen. Logan issued GAR General Order No. 11, designating May 30 as Decoration Day, for "the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in the defense of their country.” Here is the order:
HEADQUARTERS GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC
General Orders No.11, WASHINGTON, D.C., May 5, 1868
i. The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated 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. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, "of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion." What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.
If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from hishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation's gratitude, the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.
ii. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to lend its friendly aid in bringing to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.
iii. Department commanders will use efforts to make this order effective.
By order of
JOHN A. LOGAN,
WM. T. COLLINS, A.A.G.
The original date was set as May 30th, but in 1971 the U.S. Congress changed the day of observance to the last Monday in May. This year, Memorial Day actually falls on May 30th, the traditional day set aside for its celebration by Gen. Logan. While the day was set aside to memorialize the fallen soldiers of the Civil War, after WW I it became a day to memorialize those who died in any and all wars of the United States. Thus today we remember those who have died recently in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan as well.
May today be a day when we stop and actually take the time to reflect on the sacrifices made by so many so that our way of life might be preserved. Even in the Civil War, where there was such a national tear in our fabric, those who died were honored by both sides of that conflict. Today, we should lay aside our personal agendas about which wars were just and which were not and simply say ‘Thank You” to those who died so we could debate that issue in a free society.
Here is a poem quoted by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in a Memorial Day speech at Harvard in 1895 entitled "The Soldier's Faith". Holmes spoke in the 1895 speech of "part of the soldier's faith: Having known great things, to be content with silence." He cited this poem as "a little song sung by a warlike people on the Danube, which seemed to me fit for a soldier's last word...a song of the sword in its scabbard, a song of oblivion and peace. A Soldier has been buried on the battlefield."
And when the wind in the tree-tops roared,
The soldier asked from the deep dark grave:
"Did the banner flutter then?"
"Not so, my hero," the wind replied.
"The fight is done, but the banner won,
Thy comrades of old have borne it hence,
Have borne it in triumph hence."
Then the soldier spake from the deep dark grave:
"I am content."
Then he heareth the lovers laughing pass,
and the soldier asks once more:
"Are these not the voices of them that love,
That love--and remember me?"
"Not so, my hero," the lovers say,
"We are those that remember not;
For the spring has come and the earth has smiled,
And the dead must be forgot."
Then the soldier spake from the deep dark grave:
"I am content."
Let us remember the reason they died. It was so we could be free. Let us ever stand vigilant to watch over and preserve that freedom that was paid for by the blood and courage of so many. May we never take it for granted.
Copyright © 2011. Bill Fisher. All rights reserved.