Memorial Day started in 1868 as a day dedicated to honoring the dead of the Civil War. Initially called Decoration Day, it was celebrated in part by placing flowers on the soliders’ graves which could be found throughout the country.
The greatest tribute to the fallen of the Civil War and one of the greatest speeches in American history is the Gettysburg Address by President Lincoln. This two minute speech was given on November 19, 1863 to dedicate Soliders’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, PA.
We all know the opening line “four score and seven years ago” and many of us memorized the speech in school, but with each re-reading it’s hard not to be drawn to Lincoln’s tribute to soldiers who died not just for the Union, but for the preservation of freedom:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us-that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion-that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The story many of us grew up with, that Lincoln wrote the speech on the back of an envelope on the train to Gettysburg, isn’t true. However, he didn’t have much time because he was only invited to the ceremony 17 days before it occurred. The invitation specifically stated that the orator was Edward Everett. Lincoln’s limited role was to only “formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.” In modern terms, the President of the Untied States was the ribbon cutter. What Lincoln said to memorialize the 7,500 dead on the field demonstrates why he was a wonderful President.
Expansion of Memorial Day After World War I
Following the end of WWI, Memorial Day was expanded to include the American dead from any war or military action. Veterans frequently sell poppies to raise money before Memorial Day. Poppies grew into a Memorial Day symbol after the popularity of Lt. John McCrae’s seminal World War I poem, ”In Flanders Fields.” Lt. McCrae wrote the poem the day after watching his friend, Alexis Helmer, die in battle.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Fortieth Anniversary of D-Day Speech
One of the great modern day speeches honoring the fallen occurred at Ponte du Hoc on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day. Given by President Ronald Regan, it marked the sacrifice of so many from all nations to end Nazi tyranny. Read the full speech online, here is an excerpt specifically remembering the Rangers who stormed this beach in Normandy:
Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet, you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love.
The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
Follow President Obama’s Advice
In his weekly address, President Obama noted what his administration is doing to help veterans and active service soldiers and their families. He went on to remind all of us of our debt to those who sacrifice for the entire nation:
But we must also do our part, not only as a nation, but as individuals for those Americans who are bearing the burden of wars being fought on our behalf. That can mean sending a letter or a care package to our troops overseas. It can mean volunteering at a clinic where a wounded warrior is being treated or bringing supplies to a homeless veterans center. Or it can mean something as simple as saying “thank you” to a veteran you pass on the street.
We all have a role in supporting and remembering those who fought for our country.