Oliver Wendell Holmes ended his Decoration Day 1884 speech:
But grief is not the end of all…Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death, — of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and glory of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.
Frederick Douglass noted the same year in his Decoration Day Speech:
“Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.” From Frederick Douglass’ Memorial Day Speech 1884
The words of both men are something that we should not forget as we remember and honor all who have given the “last full measure of devotion to duty.”
It was after the great bloodletting known as the American Civil War that Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day was established. The first observance was made by the recently freed slaves of Charleston South Carolina who honored the memory of the Union Soldiers who had died at the Washington Racecourse Prison Camp on May 1st 1865. Other celebrations began around the country in May and June of 1866. By 1868 the Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic Union Veterans association General John Logan issued an order directing that the 30th of May 1868 be designated to the memory of the Union Soldiers, Sailors and Marines who had given their lives in the defense of the Union.
Since its establishment the holiday has grown to encompass the honored dead of all American wars. However its roots were in the Civil War, a war that claimed the lives of between 600,000 and 700,000 American military personnel on both sides of the conflict. It is hard to imagine that on one, September 17th 1862 that over 23,000 Union and Confederate Soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. At Gettysburg more men were killed and wounded than in the entirety of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Two percent of the population was killed in the war. To put that in perspective that casualty rate would involve the deaths of more than 6 million soldiers, well over twice as many men and women as currently serve on active duty and in the reserve components. Abraham Lincoln noted in his Gettysburg Address the importance of not forgetting those men:
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead 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.”
General Logan’s order is remarkable in its frankness and the understanding of the war in the immediate context of its conclusion. In 1868 the day would be observed at 183 cemeteries in 27 States and the following year over 300 cemeteries. Michigan was the first state to make the day a holiday and by 1890 all states in the North had made it so. In the South there were similar observances but the meaning attributed to the events and the sacrifices of the Soldiers of both sides was interpreted differently. In the North it was about preserving the Union and in the South the interpretation of the Lost Cause. Yet in both regions and all states, the surviving Soldiers, family members and communities honored their dead.
This Memorial Day we will honor all that have fallen but in our mind are the few that fight our current wars, wars that unlike that terrible Civil War, the majority of the population does not experience.
The order of the Grand Army of the Republic establishing Memorial Day is posted below.
HEADQUARTERS GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC, General Orders, 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 our 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 dishonor; 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.