Memorial Day, perhaps more than any other holiday, was born of necessity. Deep inside all of us lies a fundamental desire to make sense of life and our place in it and the world. What we have been given, what we will do with it and what we will pass to the next generation is all part of an unfolding history, a continuum that links one soul to another.
Abraham Lincoln undoubtedly pondered such thoughts in the late fall of 1863. His darkest fear was that he might well be the last President of the United States, a nation embroiled in the self-destruction of what he described as “a great civil war…testing whether the nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” He began his remarks with those words as he stood on the battlefield near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19th of that year.
The speech that became known as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address turned into what might be called the first observance of Memorial Day. Lincoln’s purpose that day was to dedicate a portion of the battlefield as a cemetery for the thousands of men, both living and dead, who consecrated that soil in the sacrifice of battle. Said Abraham Lincoln: “That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause which they gave the last full measure of devotion…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”
While exceptional valor and sacrifice has occurred in all of America’s wars, we did not always honor our fallen with a day dedicated in their honor. In fact, the first Memorial Day was not called Memorial Day. David W. Blight, a professor of history at Yale, believes it was celebrated with a parade of freed enslaved peoples and Union soldiers marching through Charleston, South Carolina in 1865. Not long after the Civil War ended, freed enslaved peoples, members of the U.S. Colored Troops, and some locals organized a ceremony to bury Union troops who died due to horrendous conditions of a prison created at what was once a racetrack. They honored the dead by singing hymns and placing flowers on their graves. 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. An archway over the cemetery was engraved with the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Waterloo, New York, is also considered the birthplace of Memorial Day because after it was observed there on May 5, 1866, General John Murray and General John A. Logan called on all communities to honor the war dead every year. Logan had been impressed with how the South had honored their fallen soldiers. In 1868, Logan, the head of the prominent veteran’s group, the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a proclamation that “Decoration Day” be observed nationwide. The date chosen was May 30 – specifically because it was not on the anniversary of a battle. Still, some communities did not want to honor “Decoration Day” because of lingering resentments from the Civil War. The alternative name, “Memorial Day,” wasn’t commonly used until World War II. Federal law recognized the holiday as “Memorial Day” in 1967.
From our founding Revolution to the ongoing Global War on Terrorism, nearly one million men and women in the Armed Forces have sacrificed their lives while defending America in times of war. Each of them has a story to tell, the crosses and stars of David at Normandy, the markers at the Punchbowl in Hawaii, the tombs at Arlington, and the fallen heroes who rest in places unknown.
The numbers of our fallen heroes are not just statistics. They are real people with real families who worship at real churches and live in real communities.
We can best honor their sacrifice by remembering their families, who have lost so much. Long after the battlefield guns have been silenced and the bombs stop exploding, the children of our fallen warriors will still be missing a parent. Spouses will be without their life partners. Parents will continue to grieve for their sons and daughters that died too early.
Americans must remember that freedom comes with a price. In fact, it’s only possible because our fallen heroes have paid that high price. A price paid which enables us to have ceremonies and observances in towns across our nation. As the unofficial beginning of summer, let us never lose focus of what Memorial Day means. It is not about beaches, picnics, or auto races. It is a day to remember. It is a day for us to remember the promise President Lincoln made to “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”
Remembering our fallen once a year is not enough. The widows, widowers, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and children remember every day. The empty seat at the dinner table, the smaller gathering on Thanksgiving, and the voice of a loved one heard only as a distant memory in one’s mind are constant reminders that they are gone.
We owe it to the heroes that died, and the loved ones left behind to make sure that their sacrifices are remembered and that their service to this nation always be honored.
The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego is committed to remembering the fallen and reaching out to their loved ones left behind. For more information, please contact CAPT Tierian Cash, CHC, USN Retired, Military Missioner, Episcopal Diocese of San Diego at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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4 replies to “Memorial Day: A Time to Pause and Remember”
Excellent piece on those who have lost their lives in wars and especially acknowledging the families left behind which doesn’t happen very often!!
This article was very moving for me.
Thank you for this moving article, Randy! I’m so grateful for your leadership in this area of ministry for our diocese and am honored to be working with you!
Such a poignant reminder of the meaning and historical roots of honoring those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and their families. Thank you, Chaplain Cash!