Memorial Day is a legacy of the Civil War. Approximately 640,000 American soldiers, sailors and marines, North and South, died in that war. Out of a population of some 30,000,000, the death toll would be the equivalent of the US today losing six million dead in a war. It was a rare family that was untouched by this great national tragedy and the mourning for the lives cut short went on for decades.
Immediately after the war, events honoring the fallen began to be held. Among the first of these was on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina where a largely black crowd honored the Union dead. Such memorials quickly spread throughout the Country. Usually these gatherings involved decorating and cleaning the graves of soldiers. On May 5, 1868, General John “Blackjack” A. Logan, an Illinois Congressman and an able combat general during the war, in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a proclamation that commemorations of the Union war dead and the decorating of their graves should occur on each May 30. “It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope 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 call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.”
The May 30 Decoration Day events became a fixture of life in the Northern states. The states of the old Confederacy had similar events but on different dates, varying from state to state. The term Memorial Day was first used in 1882, but the name Decoration Day remained for the holiday until after World War II. As Civil War veterans aged and passed from the scene, the day was broadened to remember all of America’s war dead. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968 moved Memorial Day to the fourth Monday in May.
As Lincoln noted in the Gettysburg address, it is “altogether fitting and proper” that we honor our war dead, but in what way can we honor them? The monuments we raise to them are really for us, to remind us of the value of valor and sacrifice. They do not walk among us to view them. They cannot tell us what they think of the speeches praising them or read the blog posts written about them. Their lives are done and they have been judged by God, as we all will be judged, and are now in Eternity. Other than the important task of praying for the repose of their souls, nothing that we say or do about them on Earth has any impact upon them.
We honor and remember them not to aid them, but to aid ourselves. Gratitude is one of the noblest of human emotions, and it would say something appalling about us if we did not express it to our war dead. Almost all men fear death, and we honor those who faced death for us. Men who have had their lives taken away in our service, are entitled to all the gratitude we can muster. If our war dead could speak to us I suspect they would echo the sentiments of the memorial to the dead of the British 2nd Division at Kohima, India:
“When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”.
By expressing our gratitude we are attempting to pay a debt that can never be paid. The objects of our gratitude are no longer with us, and so there is always a poignancy to these attempts to honor those who by their deaths made us their debtors.
The peace and freedom we enjoy have been purchased at a very high cost. As Pope Benedict noted in a speech on August 18, 2008, “Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience – almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad.” The best way for us to truly thank those who have died in our defense in our wars, is to live our lives with honor, doing as much good as we are able for the people we encounter during our journey through this vale of tears, and in that way attempt to make ourselves worthy of the price they paid.