The Meaning of Memorial Day
Memorial Day originated on a crude wooden speakers’ platform at the Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg on the 30th of May, 1864.
President Abraham Lincoln, the last speaker in a long line of distinguished orators who had come to speak that day at the dedication of the memorial cemetery to the dead of the Gettysburg battlefield, made a few remarks he had hurriedly scribbled on the back of an envelope on the train from Washington, D.C. His Gettysburg Address is considered one of the finest pieces of tribute ever written to honor any nation’s fallen.
President Lincoln said, in part:
“…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…Let us never forget that these gallant dead must not have died in vain”.
His words, printed and reprinted in newspapers all over this country, were taken into the nation’s consciousness, and have become an important part of our history.
The Grand Army of the Republic, a group of Union Civil War veterans, was the Nation’s first chartered veterans’ organization. The “GAR” began observing the anniversary of Lincoln’s historic tribute to the gallant dead at Gettysburg by decorating the graves of Civil War veterans in cemeteries all over the country with American flags and flowers.
Begun as a private remembrance of fallen comrades, the American people soon took the day to their hearts, and solemnized the sacrifice of their sons to the preservation of the Union with annual prayers and ceremonies nationwide.
On May 30th, 1868, President James A. Garfield, himself a former Union general, spoke at Gettysburg on the occasion of the first official national memorial observance. Describing the Union’s honored dead of the Civil War, he said:
“…They summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens.”
Until 1882, the day was known as “Decoration Day”. In that year, Congress declared the 30th of May an official national holiday, and re-named it “Memorial Day” to honor the dead of all America’s wars. In the 238 years of U.S. history, there have been 29 wars, major military conflicts and actions, which claimed the lives of 1,343,812 Americans.
At a military funeral, the flag draping the casket is carefully folded by the burial detail, and presented to the wife or mother of the deceased by the escort officer, with the words:
“Accept this flag with the thanks of a grateful nation.”
We as a nation sometimes forget the sacrifices that made us, and keep us, free. The families…the fathers and mothers, the husbands and wives, daughters and sons… never forget the price that has been paid.
Since the Congress passed the National Holiday Act of 1971, and Memorial Day was designated as the last Monday in May, the day set aside to honor America’s war dead has become just another three-day weekend to many people. Few bother to pause and honor the fallen. The families, and their living comrades, remember them and their sacrifice.
Pause this Memorial Day for a moment and remember the men who froze in that terrible winter at Valley Forge (and Bastogne, and Chosin Reservoir), the men who fought on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg (and San Juan Hill in Cuba, Blanc Mont in France, Bloody Ridge on Guadalcanal, Monte Casino in Italy, Heartbreak Ridge in Korea, and Hamburger Hill in Vietnam). Remember the men who fought outnumbered at Concord Bridge (and the Peking Legation, and Bataan, and Koto-Ri, Khe Sahn and Fallujah). Remember the sailors and Marines entombed in the U.S.S. Arizona on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, and all those gallant men of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard who have found a watery grave in the world’s seas in the defense of your liberty. Remember the pilots and aircrew who were shot down in flames over France in two world wars, and the graves of those who died over Germany and Japan. Mourn for those who died in the Persian Gulf, and those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Think, for just a moment, of Molly Pitcher, who took her wounded husband’s place at the cannon at the Battle of Trenton. Remember the Army nurses that refused to be evacuated from Corregidor, and the patients who needed them: many of both died in the prison camps of the Philippines and Japan.
Remember that the Vietnam Memorial has inscribed upon it the names of eight women who died serving their country.
Remember those men whose inscriptions on the Vietnam Memorial read simply: “M.I.A.”
Remember them as you drive past the cemeteries in the towns and cities of America this three-day weekend, and see the many small flags on the graves of those who served.
Remember all of them, dressed in ragged uniforms of many eras, in their ghostly ranks. Remember what they sacrificed for their country, their loved ones…and for you.
Remember them. You owe them your freedom.
Lieutenant Colonel, Armor, AUS (Ret.)
…and former Sgt. & “Mustang”
Capt. of Marines