The Real Memorial Day Observed


“Every year–in the full tide of spring, at the height of the symphony of flowers and love and life,–there comes a pause, and through the silence we hear the lonely pipe of death. Year after year lovers wandering under the apple boughs and through the clover and deep grass are surprised with sudden tears as they see black veiled figures stealing through the morning to a solider’s grave.”

–Oliver Wendell Homes

May 30, 1868 was the day that Major General John Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) that new organization of Union war veterans who saved the United States of America and ended human slavery were to lay flowers on the graves of the men who gave all that could be given for that worthy end that had been such a struggle to realize. Old Confederates had been following the custom without such direction to honor their dead. No matter that they were on the wrong side of history the dead should be honored and not disrespected. They all called it “Decoration Day” and May 30th whenever it fell on any day of the week was to be a day to “pause” and remember.

The very worst thing our Congress has done regarding those days that are civic in nature is to put them all on Mondays. So many of them deserve to be on any weekday they may fall on. July 4th should be on July 4th. Martin Luther King Jr’s. birthday is not always a Monday. With the longer weekends whatever day is being marked or commemorated loses meaning. It degenerates into grilling out and partying and just why we are pausing from our labors is not known. When our busy, frenetic work lives are interrupted it gets our attention and allows us to pause and think. Only then will we remember.

It is early on Memorial Day. The old veterans gather at a local meeting hall and they have all gotten into their old uniforms of faded blue and one points out the bullet hole in the tunic that nearly killed him at Vicksburg. Another has a hat with just such a bullet entry point and points it out saying that was from a Confederate sniper in the lines at Kennesaw Mountain Georgia in 1864. Others have the sleeve of one of their arms tied up and they are empty. Another is missing a leg and the pant leg simply hangs where the limb used to be and he is on crutches. It is on this day that their community will not see them as the broken remnants of a past they might wish to forget. The empty sleeve or hanging pant leg now carries honor with it on this day.

Already, several women of the town have been to the local cemetery. They are fortunate. The bodies of their husbands, fathers, brothers, or lovers were able to be recovered from where they fell and were sent home. They wear black mourning clothes with those dark veils. They carry small baskets of flowers and clutching their Bibles and if Catholic perhaps their Rosary Beads. Others, like the family of Captain George West, of Company C 10th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry are not so lucky. He is still officially listed as missing in action. Many like them have gone South to look for their loved ones only to be told that often such cases involved a mass grave and just about anywhere you would care to look would be the correct place.

Little boys with too much energy for so early in the morning run through the dusty streets with American flags barefoot and try to pull the curls of little girls who want to be ladies and carry baskets of food and drinks to the soldiers of the late war of the Rebellion.

There begins a march near the middle of the morning of the veterans of the war and they march well despite those with wounds. Many wear ribbons that testify they have been to veterans meetings around the nation commemorating their service. The rest of the town falls into line and they go to the cemetery to join the others and lay flowers and wreaths at the appropriate soldiers graves–their comrades in arms. Prayers are said by the town’s ministers. All bow their heads in prayer.

There is a big meal down at the town hall and later those that feel the need go to an area church for a memorial service. Others quietly go to their homes and wait for the next day, a workday like so many others. But they pause and reflect upon the meaning of it all. Why did it happen? What should we take from the service of the men and now in our present day America the women who give themselves in service to protect us and maintain our government of laws and the liberties we continue to enjoy so freely and without so much as a thought to how dearly bought they are.

This is the real Memorial Day Observed. That little notation on a calendar means so much yet we do not stop to consider it. What will you do or what did you do on Memorial Day Observed? Was it appropriate to a day marking the giving of a life for you?

These are days on many a battlefield of that Great War of Rebellion and on so many other terrible battlefields of so many other wars and in Arlington National Cemetary in Washington D.C. when so many gather to pause and hear that lonely pipe of death and to consider what the song means.

“Their valor was not the fury of the non-combatant; they have no voice in the thunder of the civilians and the shouting. Not by them are impaired the dignity and infinite pathos of [the battlefield]. Give them, those blameless gentlemen, their rightful part in all the pomp that fills the circuit of the summer hills.”

How does your observance of Memorial Day measure up to the real Memorial Day Observed?

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