Good morning. It is a honor to be here with you today.
Today is Memorial Day, the day that we set aside to honor the fallen. To remember those who have given their lives in service to this great nation of ours over the course of nine wars. To take the time to pause and reflect and to pay our respects.
When I was asked to speak, I did what everyone does these days when they want to drill down and do some in-depth research on a topic—I Googled it. I know what Memorial Day means to me but I was curious about the origins of Memorial Day and how the day has evolved over the course of the years.
And although I got over 81 million search results in less than a tenth of a second, I can tell you that I didn’t initially get my answer, that it took me another hour of reading and sifting through information to even begin to get a sense of how Memorial Day came to be.
Over two dozen cities and towns, from Columbus, Mississippi to Carbondale, Illinois, claim to have given birth to Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day. And just so we’re clear, the “real” birthplace of Memorial Day is Waterloo, New York. Well, at least according to the United States Government.
And whereas most people agree that Memorial Day started sometime near the end of the Civil War, there is little consensus on which side started it. The Union says they were the first to set aside “memorial days.” But, those living in Confederate states eschew such a claim, saying that they had been decorating graves long before those Yankees.
I also discovered, through the course of my research, that Memorial Day isn’t even one specific day. Although a law was passed in 1971, marking the last Monday in May as the official date for Memorial Day, many states have adopted their own days to honor their fallen. And many Memorial Day ceremonies are held on May 30th.
Why May 30th? Well, that’s the day that Civil War hero General John Alexander Logan said was the day to be set aside to remember the Union and Confederate soldiers who died during the war. It is believed that that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country. Because, as General Logan put it, graves were to be decorated with “the choicest flowers of springtime.”
But some historians maintain that May 30th might have more to do with Cassandra Oliver Moncure, the leader of the Virginia Women’s Auxiliary, who spearheaded many “Decoration Day” activities. I should tell you that Cassandra was of French extraction and she picked May 30th because it corresponded to the Day of Ashes in France, a solemn day, commemorating the return of Napoleon Bonaparte’s remains to Paris.
Note my confusion.
It wasn’t until I spoke to my daughter, who is eleven, that all of this started to make sense.
Our conversation started out quite innocuously. Over a plate of cookies, I asked her that catch all mom phrase that I didn’t really expect an answer to: “so, what did you learn in school today?” And as she began to share what she learned in school, I felt the fog in my brain begin to lift, the fog that had taken up residency there ever since my Google search.
“Did you know that President Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address was only ten sentences long,” she began. “And that it only took him two minutes to say? And that he wasn’t even the real speaker that day? He was like an afterthought.” And with that she began to recite Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address.
In my mind’s eye, I could see Lincoln standing on what had been a battlefield, at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Pennsylvania in November of 1863, just four and a half months after the Union army defeated the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg. Surely, this 16th President of the United States had to be wondering if he would be the last President of the United States. At the helm when America literally split into two, he was now at the forefront of the effort to carefully and cautiously knit it back together.
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground,” Lincoln said. “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.”
And as my daughter finished her recitation, I exhaled softly and quietly said “that was the first Memorial Day.” To which she replied “yup!”
And finally, all of my research made sense. There were so many “firsts” in the origins of Memorial Day because everyone was yearning for the same thing at the same time in the wake of a war ravaged nation.
I would like to close with this…in the course of my research, I came across a piece that said, “Memorial Day, perhaps more than any other holiday, was born of human necessity.” Deep inside all of us lies a fundamental desire to make sense of life and our place in it and the world. What we have been given, what we will do with it and what we will pass to the next generation is all part of an unfolding history, a continuum that links one soul to another.
I found that to be so profound and really at the heart of what President Lincoln was trying to convey and what we are here to commemorate together today—to acknowledge our place in the linear progression of time, to remember those that have gone before us to secure the freedoms that we hold so dear, to promise that we will continue to carry that torch that lights Freedom’s way.
May God bless those who made the ultimate sacrifice. May God bless the families of the fallen. And may God continue to bless America.
-Melissa Sims, Guest Speaker, Hammonton Memorial Day Parade and Ceremony, May 28. 2012