Memorial Day, perhaps more than any other holiday, was born out of human grief and human necessity. While American soldiers fell in the Revolutionary War, in the War of 1812, and in the various conflicts of our young nation, the great bloodletting that defines us as a people and that forged modern America was the Civil War.
President Abraham Lincoln pondered why this calamitous war that literally pitted brother against brother had engulfed the nation. Lincoln struggled with the fact that both the North and the South believed God was on their side. Yet both sides couldn't be right; perhaps neither side was completely right. And, Lincoln thought, it may be that God sent this terrible war, with all of its tragic loss of life, as a judgment against the nation for having profited from and allowed human bondage for two centuries or more. Yet that realization didn't paralyze Lincoln.
In his second inaugural address he said,
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
At the time, The London Spectator said of the March 4, 1865, address,
"We cannot read it without a renewed conviction that it is the noblest political document known to history, and should have for the nation and the statesmen he left behind him something of a sacred and almost prophetic character."
And indeed you can hear Lincoln's anguish as he came in the late fall of 1863 to one of the most momentous of Civil War battlefields, Gettysburg, where in many ways, the fate of the Union was decided. It's clear one of Lincoln's darkest fears was that he might well be the last President of the United States, a nation that was embroiled in the self-destruction of a great civil war as he put it in his speech at Gettysburg:
"… testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."
That's how he began his remarks as the battlefield was dedicated. That short speech that has become known as the Gettysburg Address turned really into what might be called the first observance of Memorial Day. He said, "… that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause, [for] which they gave the last full measure of devotion … that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom."
It was said of his address,
"The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech." (Senator Charles Sumner, June 1, 1865)
About the same time, shortly before the end of the Civil War in 1865, Henry Wells, a druggist in Waterloo, New York, began promoting the idea of decorating the graves of Civil War veterans. He gained the support of others including General John Murray, who was at that time the county clerk. The two formed a committee to make wreaths, crosses, and bouquets for each veteran's grave. On May 5, 1866, war veterans marching to martial music led processions to each of the three cemeteries where the graves were decorated and speeches were made. As the Civil War was coming to a close, women's auxiliaries in both the North and the South were decorating and honoring the graves of Union veterans and Confederate veterans. They began to coalesce around May 30th as the day to do that.
In 1868, General John A. Logan, the first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, regarded as a forerunner of the American Legion, issued a general order establishing May 30th as an official memorial day to pay respect to all those who had died in war or peace.
On May 5, 1868, General Logan declared in General Order #11 that,
"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 churchyard 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."
During that first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery after which 5,000 participants helped decorate the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.
It was not until 1971 that Congress declared Memorial Day to be a national holiday to be celebrated the last Monday in May. Today, Memorial Day is celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave in Arlington Cemetery. Also, it is customary for the President or the Vice President to give a speech honoring the contributions of the dead and to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
I suspect that General Logan's proclamation of 1868 was simply the making official of what the nation yearned for and spontaneously began to do in various communities and locations both North and South as they surveyed the horrific destruction wrought upon the nation during the Civil War. In that sharing of loss, in that honoring the sacrifices of those who made possible the lives we enjoy today, we reach across the generations and keep Memorial Day in our hearts.
I suspect that all of us—whether we realize it or not—have a connection to someone who died serving our country. It is those losses—from our revolution for independence to the current war on terrorism—which we commemorate and memorialize on Memorial Day.
The day is more often regarded now as the official beginning of summer and another occasion for department stores to have sales. A recent Gallup poll revealed only 3 percent of respondents planned to attend a formal community event to mark the day and only 28 percent of those polled knew the meaning of the date. I am hopeful the battlefield sacrifices that are memorialized on that day will survive in our consciences throughout the year and that as we look toward next year, we will commit anew to remember those who unselfishly served and died for our sake. We are of all people most blessed.
As President George W. Bush looked over our national cemetery during services held there May 28, 2007, he said,
"We receive the fallen in sorrow, and we take them to an honored place to rest. Looking across this field, we see the scale of heroism and sacrifice. All who are buried here understood their duty. All stood to protect America. And all carried with them memories of a family that they hoped to keep safe by their sacrifice."
We are thankful to God Almighty that in His providence we have the privilege of being born in the United States of America, the greatest nation ever conceived in the mind of man, a nation that has been profoundly blessed by God. Freedom isn't cheap; freedom isn't free. American heroes in uniform paid the supreme sacrifice to secure that liberty. Let us never forget.
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.