The First Memorial Day
My Own True Love and I just got home from a Memorial Day service in Grant Park. It was held at the foot of a statue commemorating General John A.Logan. Before today, Logan on horseback was just another obscure Civil War statue. One I hadn’t paid much attention to.
Like most Memorial Day services, whether the day is cold and rainy like today or blazing with the first heat of summer, the ceremony was moving. A young Marine captain, veteran of the Iraq war, reminded us that Memorial Day is not Veteran’s Day–that the purpose is not to thank the living* but to honor the dead. A woman who left Vietnam as a toddler at the end of the Vietnam War played an achingly beautiful version of Taps. I was not the only person who cried.
We always attend a Memorial Day service if we can. We chose the service in Grant Park by chance. It turns out that celebrating Memorial Day at General Logan’s feet is particularly appropriate. Logan was a Civil War general, a congressman and senator from Illinois, and an unsuccessful candidate for Vice-President. In his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, he was also one of the principal founders of Memorial Day.
On May 5, 1868, Logan issued GAR General Order 11, establishing the first Memorial Day:
I. 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 or 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 by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foe? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a 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 found 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 free and undivided republic.
If other eyes grow dull and 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 in us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude,–the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.
II. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.
With the exception of the jabs at the Confederacy, I couldn’t say it better myself.
Remember the fallen. Thank the living. Pray for peace.
* Though I urge you to thank, or hug, a veteran while you’re thinking about it.
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