The Meaning of Memorial Day in Their Words

Looking forward to tomorrow’s observances, I have spent a good portion of the day reading various Memorial Day orations delivered by those who lived through the Civil War.

The holiday, as many readers will know, was first known as “Decoration Day.” The purpose was to decorate the graves of those who fell in the Civil War and to honor their memory. Various communities, North and South, organized their own Decoration Days as early as 1866. What might be called the first “national” Decoration Day was proclaimed by the Grand Army of the Republic (the veterans organization for Union soldiers) and took place on May 30, 1868. The GAR urged all posts in communities across the nation to appropriately observe the day. “If other eyes grow dull,” wrote Major General John Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the GAR, “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.”

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

It is fascinating to read early Memorial Day addresses by historical figures who remembered the Civil War all too well. They range widely in tone. Frederick Douglass gave an address entitled “Unknown and Loyal Dead” at Arlington Cemetery in 1871. A former slave, he certainly had reason to speak in bitter terms about the Confederacy. He employed a tactic used by many others who shared his views known as “waving the bloody shirt”:

…When the Union of these States was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundation of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country. We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism…to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice. I am no minister of malice…but may my ‘right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.

William Francis Bartlett (1840-1876)

William Francis Bartlett (1840-1876)

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the address of Major General William Francis Bartlett on June 24, 1874. Granted, this was not a Memorial Day address, but given during the dedication ceremony for Memorial Hall at Harvard, and so the theme and purpose of the speech was in the same vein. Bartlett’s service in the Civil War was astounding. He rose from private to brigadier general–the youngest general from Massachusetts (reaching that rank at age 24) and one of the youngest generals in the war. He was wounded five times, suffered the loss of a leg, and nearly perished in a Confederate prison. Yet after the war, Bartlett was one of the leading proponents of reconciliation between the North and South:

It was to make this a happy, reunited country, where every man should be in reality free and equal before the law, that our comrades fought, our brothers fell. They died not that New England might prosper, or that the West might thrive. They died not to defend the Northern Capitol, or preserve those marble halls where the polished statesmen of the period conduct their dignified debates! They died for their country—for the South no less than for the North…As an American, I am as proud of the men who charged so bravely with Pickett’s Division on our lines at Gettysburg, as I am of the men who so bravely met and repulsed them there.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935)

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935)

Perhaps the best known of these early Memorial Day speeches is that of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., entitled simply, “Memorial Day.” A few lines formed the introduction to Ken Burns’s famous documentary, The Civil War, and will be familiar to many. “…In our youth our hearts were touched with fire…”

Holmes, a 20 year old Harvard law student at the start of the war, became a captain in the 20th Massachusetts Infantry. He was wounded in the chest during the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, in the neck during Antietam, and shot a third time during Chancellorsville. After the war he led about as distinguished a legal career as one ever could, being appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1882, becoming Chief Justice of that Court in 1899, then being appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1902. He gave a Memorial Day address on May 30, 1884 at the GAR post in Keene, New Hampshire that is beautiful in its eloquence. Although a lengthy speech, the full text is really worth a read. I here offer some excerpts:

Not long ago I heard a young man ask why people still kept up Memorial Day, and it set me thinking of the answer. Not the answer that you and I should give to each other, — not the expression of those feelings that, so long as you and I live, will make this day sacred to memories of love and grief and heroic youth, — but an answer which should command the assent of those who do not share our memories, and in which we of the North and our brethren of the South could join in perfect accord.

So far as this last is concerned, to be sure, there is no trouble. The soldiers who were doing their best to kill one another felt less of personal hostility, I am very certain, than some who were not imperilled by their mutual endeavors…We believed that it was most desirable that the North should win; we believed in the principle that the Union is indissoluble; we, or many of us at least, also believed that the conflict was inevitable, and that slavery had lasted long enough. But we equally believed that those who stood against us held just as sacred convictions that were the opposite of ours, and we respected them as every man with a heart must respect those who give all for their belief….

So to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, It celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly….

It is not of the dead alone that we think on this day. There are those still living whose sex forbade them to offer their lives, but who gave instead their happiness. Which of us has not been lifted above himself by the sight of one of those lovely, lonely women, around whom the wand of sorrow has traced its excluding circle, — set apart, even when surrounded by loving friends who would fain bring back joy to their lives?…

But grief is not the end of all…Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death, — of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and glory of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.

Tomorrow, remember those who have fallen and honor them. At the same time, following Justice Holmes’s infinitely wise advice, also celebrate the great chorus of life and hope.

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, sometimes Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

4 responses to “The Meaning of Memorial Day in Their Words

  • Lee Wright

    Very interesting, Patrick. Thanks for taking the time to research these and compose this thoughtful post. Great historical context. I hope more people find out about it and have a chance to read the excerpts from the three speeches.

  • Melanie

    Beautifully said…

  • Jim Dwyer

    Well done, Patrick. Thank you. And thank you to all those who, in your words, “celebrate the great chorus of life and hope.”

  • Doug

    Spent last weekend visiting my son at college in Geneva NY. We stayed in nearby Waterloo which as it turns out has the official designation as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Oddly there is very little for the casual observer to make the connection between the ACW and and Memorial day. Oddly enough there is a prominent monument in the middle of the lovely little park commemorating the destruction of a native american village. Not to get all PC but that is one monument whose purpose seems to have passed its expiration date.

    On a side note I came across a very unique and touching monument of sorts at a place called the Scythe Tree Farm. One can google it and find the story behind the tree. A very touching story and yet another example of the broad reach the war had on this country (and still does in many ways).

    Thanks for another good post Patrick!

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