Reflections on Memorial Day

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

This past week saw the 155th observation of Memorial Day, a holiday first codified by General John Logan on May 5, 1868, in his General Order number 11. It used to be celebrated every May 30th, until convention – and a desire for a 3-day weekend — led to its observation on "the last Monday in May."

Memorial day, juxtaposed at the end of the school year, became the bookend to Labor Day, markers that over time came to symbolize the "summer" period more than any tribute originally intended. For parents, it’s a grim reminder that children will be home all day soon, for teachers a light at the end of the tunnel, and for combatants in our quadrennial presidential election cycle its marks a sort of quiet period.

Memorial day has become about all these things – and cookouts, and Tent Sales, and pool openings as well. It has become so many things that what it is – what it was established to do – is largely lost.

Memorial day is a day we should remember our "honored dead," who, as Lincoln so eloquently stated at Gettysburg, "gave the last full measure of devotion" to us and our posterity. It is a time to reflect on the sacrifice of so many who gave their lives, in locations all over the world, in the defense of our freedom and in the advancement of liberty. It should be a honored day that stands first and foremost in a free nation, for without those sacrifices we could not lay claim to such a title.

That is why certain traditions that are still observed move me. One of the most stunning to see occurs the Thursday before memorial day at Arlington National Cemetery. On that day, the 1200 members of the 3rd Infantry place small flags on every headstone nestled on the hillsides across from Washington. They place these flags – more than 260,000 of them – and then they stand guard 24 hours a day until Tuesday to ensure that every flag stays standing the whole weekend. It is an honor the 3rd takes seriously and a tribute that is moving in its simple, quiet solemnity.

If you have never been to Arlington, it is a place that all who visit Washington should see. There is no more moving monument than the overwhelming sight of the great sacrifice of those who came before us.

Another similar tradition was started by the Boys Scouts in 1951, when the St. Louis members started placing 150,000 flags at the Jefferson Barrack’s National Cemetery as an annual good turn. The Scouts have continued that tradition to this day.

In other places, such as Fort Indiantown Gap, the observation of Memorial Day is a solemn affair that, sadly, almost always includes consecrating another member into our American Valhalla. The playing of taps, echoing across a silent crowd, cannot help but stir one’s heart.

This is what General Order No. 11 envisioned – a sacred reminder of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their countrymen. The language in that order is a tribute unto itself. It reads:

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 other 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; 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.

The words are simple, yet powerful, evoking in all of us who enjoy the freedom that sacrifice purchased a sacred duty to honor the fallen.

So, as we mark the beginning of summer each year the last weekend in May, we would be well reminded to honor those who have made this country the shining city on a hill that it is. As we listen to our would be leaders argue and debate, we should never forget that the freedom to engage in free politics was bought and paid for with the blood of those who lie in sacred ground across the globe. And as we sit back and enjoy the simple splendor of a warm American summer evening with our families, we should say a prayer for those souls who did not get to enjoy it with us.

I’m Scott Paterno, and may God’s peace be with those who have given their lives in service to their country.