“But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot 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…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. It is rather for us to be here dedicate 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…”
Abraham Lincoln spoke these words in what would be known as the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1893, at a solemn observation of the bloody Battle of Gettysburg, a three-day battle in June 1893 that resulted in the most casualties of the American Civil War and marked a turning point in the war. The Union forces defeated the Confederate forces at Gettysburg, preventing further encroachment North. The Confederate army did not fully recover after this.
This eloquent speech – considered a failure in Lincoln’s day because it lasted only two minutes – embodies the heart of Memorial Day.
The Civil War ended in the spring of 1865. Three years later, in the beginnings of the Reconstruction Era that lasted until 1877, General John A. Logan, a soldier in the Mexican-American War and Union general in the Civil War, issued General Orders No. 11 from the Grand Army of the Republic headquarters in Washington, D.C. (The Grand Army of the Republic was a fraternity of Civil War Union army veterans.) This general order read, in part:
“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…We are organized…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 by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes?… If other eyes grow dull and 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 remains in us.”
Because the custom was to decorate the graves of the fallen soldier, the original name for Memorial Day was Decoration Day. This first national commemoration took place at Arlington National Cemetery, where both Union and Confederate soldiers lay. Local observances from years before inspired the events on this day. In one of the first local tributes, a group of women in Columbus, MS, decorated the graves of soldiers from the Battle of Shiloh.
Ohio Congressman and former major general James A. Garfield took the stage to deliver a powerful, moving address before the 5,000 gathered. “I am oppressed,” he began, “with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung.” (If you have the time, I encourage you to read the entirety of the address.)
Though at first intended for the fallen of the Civil War, the commemoration extended to fallen soldiers from all American wars after World War I. On 1971, an act of Congress declared Memorial Day a federal holiday to be observed on the fourth Monday each May.
It’s so easy to take for granted the liberties enjoyed in free nations and to forget about the pain and sorrow endured to secure peace.
Remember the fallen today, for without them we, the risen, could not now exist.