“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.” Abraham Lincoln the Gettysburg Address
As we contemplate the importance of Memorial Day and remember the men and women who gave their lives for this country it is important to remember why we do this. Memorial Day grew out of local observances following the Civil War, a war that claimed the lives of over 620,000 American Soldiers from the Union and the Confederacy. New demographic studies by historians estimate the losses at closer to 750,000. Hundreds of thousands of other people had they lives shattered by the war, killed, wounded, maimed, crippled, shattered in mind and spirit, the country in many places devastated by war’s destruction. Using the 620,000 number that would have meant that 2.5% of the population of the country died in the war. People needed to make sense of the losses.
To put this in perspective, if the same number of Americans were to die today in a way the total would be over seven million people. Seven million my friends. War reached into every home in some way, and sadly or perhaps thankfully we have no concept of such losses today.
In 1868, Major General John Logan who had been an excellent corps commander during the war was serving as the Commander of the nation’s first true Veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic which gave those veterans a place of refuge in a country that was leaving them behind and forgetting their sacrifice in the name of westward expansion and a growing economy. Let’s face it, money has almost always been more important to Americans than the troops who sacrificed their lives for the nation, but I digress…
Anyway General Logan issued this order on May 5th 1868:
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 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.
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 quite differently. In the North the Veterans overwhelmingly saw themselves as the saviors of the Union and the liberators of the Slaves. In South it was about the sacrifices of Confederate soldiers in what became known as the “Lost Cause.” But in both regions and all states, the surviving Soldiers, family members and communities honored their dead.
In 1884 Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Frederick Douglass both spoke about the meaning of the sacrifice made by so many.
Holmes, a veteran of the war who had been wounded at Antietam 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.”
Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist who lobbied Lincoln for emancipation and to give Blacks the chance to serve their country had two of his sons serve in the war spoke these wars:
“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.”
It is important for the country not to forget those who served and the cost of those who have given the last full measure of devotion to duty and those who still carry the scars of war on their bodies and in their minds and spirits. I am one of the latter and I have known too many of the former. Maybe that is why am so distrustful of those who advocate for war but have no skin in the game.
An Alsatian-German Soldier named Guy Sager wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier:
“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”
I agree with him and pray that those who direct the course of this nation will take the words of General Logan, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Frederick Douglass and Guy Sager to heart before they embark on war, and when they remember those that have served.
May we never forget.