Memorial Day: Monday May 29, 2017
As one views the passing of time, annual remembrances of special events and loved ones take on special significance. This is especially true for those who have lost loved ones in the service of their country.
In the last century, many children grew up with only one parent because the other parent gave their life on some foreign battlefield. Sadly, for the first 17 years into this new century, many children have experienced the same bitter reality.
Not all parents are lost on the battlefield. Many return to their homes, but they are not the same. Too many drift away into the dark shadows and die broken and alone.
Many struggle with the memories of the experiences of war. War changes people. War takes more than its gives.
As US President Dwight D. Eisenhower once poignantly stated
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”
Many soldiers have died carrying this cross of iron. The burden of war rests on the shoulders of the young: “Older men declare war. But it is youth that must fight and die.” US President Herbert Hoover
War seems to be part of the human genome. There have always been conflicts, and perhaps, the Genesis story of Cain and Abel in Chapter 4 reflects the origins of human conflict.
For as we read that chapter, Cain’s descendant Lamech tells his two wives Adah and Zillah about his kill of fellow brothers. So it began for the human race that killing became part of life on this planet traversing the cosmos.
Memorial Day is a time for reflection, remembrance and gratitude to those who heeded the summons to serve their country. To them and their families a debt of deep appreciation and respect are owed.
Based on my family history, many of my progenitors served in the armed forces. Their dedicated service is part of my heritage which I gratefully acknowledge.
Perhaps, immortality is granted to the one who served by remembering them. The flag on their grave is a symbol of what they chose to follow into the fray of uncertainty, but with the hope that what they did on that particular battlefield would make a difference for their country and family.
In closing, the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. are just as true today as they were on May 30, 1884 in Keene, New Hampshire:
“Such hearts–ah me, how many!–were stilled twenty years ago; and to us who remain behind is left this day of memories. Every year–in the full tide of spring, at the height of the symphony of flowers and love and life–there comes a pause, and through the silence we hear the lonely pipe of death. Year after year lovers wandering under the apple trees and through the clover and deep grass are surprised with sudden tears as they see black veiled figures stealing through the morning to a soldier’s grave. Year after year the comrades of the dead follow, with public honor, procession and commemorative flags and funeral march–honor and grief from us who stand almost alone, and have seen the best and noblest of our generation pass away.
“But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. 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 joy 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.” In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire http://www.people.virginia.edu/~mmd5f/memorial.htm
G. D. Williams © 2017
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “The 30th 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 churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed.
The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.
On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.
“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.” Ohio Congressman and former Union General James A. Garfield, May 30, 1868 Arlington National Cemetery
Forgetting Why We Remember
Memorial Days were initially occasions of sacred bereavement, and from the war’s end to the early 20th century they helped forge national reconciliation around soldierly sacrifice, regardless of cause. In North and South, orators and participants frequently called Memorial Day an “American All Saints Day,” likening it to the European Catholic tradition of whole towns marching to churchyards to honor dead loved ones.
But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender…
The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.
After the dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.
The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.
Reagan’s Remarks at a Memorial Day Ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia — 5/26/86