Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day -- Historical Perspective

Memorial Day: a day of parades and picnics, bratwurst and beer, yard sales and Indy racing... or some combination thereof. For a lot of Americans, it means sales fliers and commerce, the mid-year attempt to drag you into their stores or car lots for Big Big Savings!

How it became all those things,is beyond me. Today, we pay tribute to those we have lost and what we have gained by their sacrifice. Whether you salute your forbears with a flag or a hand or a hotdog or with you credit card is up to you. There's nothing inherently wrong with all of the things I listed, but I feel that - like so many American holidays - the real core of our holidays get lost in the noise.

For a little historical perspective, I dug up General Orders Number 11 of the Grand Army of the Republic -- the original Memorial Day proclamation. Made in 1868 to commemorate those who were killed in the course of the American Civil War so that we would never forget the darkest moments in our history and the sacrifices that preserved the union.

Please take a moment to read and take stock of what you are enjoying and why it is possible.
General Orders No. 11, Grand Army of the Republic Headquarters. 
WASHINGTON, D.C., May 5, 1868

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 church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of 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 cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the 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 fond 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 a free and undivided republic.

If other eyes grow dull, 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 to us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from hishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation's gratitude, the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.

It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that 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 lend its friendly aid in bringing to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

Department commanders will use efforts to make this order effective.

By order of



Adjutant General



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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).