"There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for another."
From "Fallen Heroes" a photo essay by Daniel J. Wood. Location: Barrancas National Cemetery, Pensacola Florida.
"Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow -
Memorial Day, the holiday, began as a spontaneous outpouring of honoring and remembrance for six hundred thousand U.S. citizens who died fighting the Civil War (history of the holiday here).
Towns and villages in both the North and the South began decorating the grave sites of the war dead with flowers, hence the early name for the holiday: Decoration Day.
Music has also been an important part of the Memorial Day observance from it's inception. Musicians may find this antique sheet music interesting. It's dedicated to the "Ladies of the South who are decorating the graves of the Confederate Dead." The hymn was published in 1867:
Kneel Where Our Loves Are Sleeping
Words by G.W.R.
Music by Mrs. L. Nella Sweet
Kneel where our loves are sleeping, Dear ones days gone by,
Here we bow in holy reverence, Our bosoms heave the heartfelt sigh.
They fell like brave men, true as steel, And pour’d their blood like rain,
We feel we owe them all we have, And can but weep and kneel again.
Kneel where our loves are sleeping, They lost but still were good and true,
Our fathers, brothers fell still fighting, We weep, ‘tis all that we can do.
Here we find our noble dead, Their spirits soar’d to him above,
Rest they now about his throne, For God is mercy, God is love.
Then let us pray that we may live, As pure and good as they have been,
That dying we may ask of him, To open the gate and let us in.
Kneel where our loves are sleeping, They lost but still were good and true,
Our fathers, brothers fell still fighting, We weep, ‘tis all that we can do."
Decoration Day became official with General Orders No. 11 issued by General John Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic in May 1868.
And while some Americans today view Memorial Day as another day off of work, or the chance for a three day trip to the beach, many Americans remember the sacrifice this day recalls and we honor those who have fallen so we might have the freedom and luxuries of a holiday to enjoy.
In military cemeteries across the Nation and also in lands where U.S. soldiers died far from home (list here with Memorial Day events) men, women and children will gather to remember, reflect and to honor those who gave what Abraham Lincoln called "that last full measure of devotion.
In places near and far men and women will gather as does the "Old Guard" Third Infantry Regiment at Arlington National Cemetery to place flags on the graves of fallen soldiers. The Old Guard gives their ceremony the name "Flags In" creating a sea of Red, White and Blue among the markers.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow - this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 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.
President Abraham Lincoln
Continuing the musical tradition, singers like Trace Atkins offer this video "Arlington." Lyrics below:
I never thought that this is where I'd settle down,
I thought I'd die an old man back in my hometown,
They gave me this plot of land, me and some other men, for a job well done,
there's a big white house sits on a hill just up the road,
the man inside he cried the day they brought me home,
they folded up a flag and told my mom and dad, we're proud of your son .
And I'm proud to be on this peaceful piece of property,
I'm on sacred ground and i'm in the best of company,
I'm thankful for those things i've done,
I can rest in peace, I'm one of the chosen ones, I made it to Arlington.
I remember daddy brought me here when I was eight,
we searched all day to find out where my granddad lay,
and when we finally found that cross,
he said, "son this is what it cost to keep us free" Now here I am,
a thousand stones away from him,
he recognized me on the first day I came in,
and it gave me a chill when he clicked his heels, and saluted me.
And every time I hear twenty-one guns,
I know they brought another hero home to us.
We're thankful for those thankful for the things we've done,
we can rest in peace, 'cause we are the chosen ones,
we made it to Arlington, yea dust to dust,
don't cry for us, we made it to Arlington.
More video music tributes:
David Matthews of Pack 308 places a flag on a grave at Zachary Taylor National Cemetery May 26, 2007 in Louisville, Kentucky. Boy Scouts from the Seneca District and the Lincoln Heritage Council, which represents the Louisville area, participated in the flag placing. This was the 25th year that scouts have been placing flags on the graves at the cemetery. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Memorial Day in Iraq
Today in Iraq, U.S. soldiers, men and women, will observe Memorial Day with personal reflections on fellow soldiers who have died in that long conflict. One news report even showed Iraqi Sheiks and tribal leaders coming to a U.S. Marine compound to pay their respects to some of the 3444 U.S. soldiers who have given their lives to help Iraq and ensure U.S. National Security.
While each of those lives lost is tragic and we honor and mourn their loss, we can also be thankful that we live in a nation where such sacrifice is less and less called upon. Since Memorial Day started as an observance of our Civil War dead, contrast the 3444 fallen soldiers in Iraq over four years with the 3,650 U.S. and Confederate troops who died at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862.
Mark Steyn puts it in perspective and offers a message which should also be heard on this day:
The loss of proportion
May 30th 2004
More than 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War - or about 1.8 percent of the population. Today, if 1.8 percent of the population were killed in war, there would be 5.4 million graves to decorate on Decoration Day.
But that's the difference between then and now: the loss of proportion. They had victims galore back in 1863, but they weren't a victim culture. They had a lot of crummy decisions and bureaucratic screw-ups worth re-examining, but they weren't a nation that prioritized retroactive pseudo-legalistic self-flagellating vaudeville over all else. They had hellish setbacks but they didn't lose sight of the forest in order to obsess week after week on one tiny twig of one weedy little tree.
There is something not just ridiculous but unbecoming about a hyperpower 300 million strong whose elites - from the deranged former vice president down - want the outcome of a war, and the fate of a nation, to hinge on one freaky jailhouse; elites who are willing to pay any price, bear any burden, as long as it's pain-free, squeaky-clean and over in a week. The sheer silliness dishonors the memory of all those we're supposed to be remembering this Memorial Day.
Playing by Gore-Kennedy rules, the Union would have lost the Civil War, the rebels the Revolutionary War, and the colonists the French and Indian Wars. There would, in other words, be no America. Even in its grief, my part of New Hampshire understood that 141 years ago. We should, too.