Memorial Day: Honor the Dead, America's "Unfinished Work"


Memorial Day is a Federal holiday in America.  Federal employees do not work.  [Here, professional and amateur satirists might add , “as usual” or “that’s an improvement.”]  Banks, large businesses, schools, and other institutions follow suit by law, by custom, or by negotiated contract.  On this day we do not work.  We remember.  And we also enjoy the early summer weather, we eat outdoors, play softball, listen to patriotic band music, and take advantage of Memorial Day sales.  We multitask. 

Before it was a Federal holiday, Memorial Day was Decoration Day when the survivors of the Civil War, South and North, the women folk mainly, adorned with flowers the graves of the many dead from nearly every family in what is still amazingly America’s bloodiest war.  No bands or barbeques.  Alas, no sales. Just a simple flower and maybe a prayer or “I love you,” at each man’s grave.

Memorial Day grew in purpose after World War I and World War II to remember the dead from those conflicts.  After the states recognized the holiday It became an official Federal holiday on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 – 363) to ensure a three day weekend, known to gasoline refiners as the start of the summer driving season.

Remember 9/17.  Near Washington, DC is the Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, MD.  The bloodiest one-day battle in American history was waged in the cornfields of the Maryland countryside in 1862.  Today, DC residents speed through this same countryside on their way to ocean relief from the summer heat.  148 years ago 23,000 men lost their lives here.  Can you grasp it?  23,000?  Over seven times the loss of life on 9/11/2001 which we remember still.   Seven times that lost on 9/17/62.  Brother killing brother.

They lost their lives.  Gave heir lives.  Died that day.  

For the Union. For the cause.  For freedom.  For duty.  For their comrades.  

We should remember 9/11 and  9/17.   How can we today honor that kind of  sacrifice?   

A better man than I asked that same question – and answered it years ago.   I considered editing it down to 140 characters for my fellow tweeters but the original is very brief and powerful.  Extremely brief and mercifully to the point for the little I have read from the 19th century writing.  

Four months after the decisive battle of the Civil War took place on the same ground in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,  President Abraham Lincoln dedicated a cemetery where  7,500 were buried.  They were among the 172,000 men  fought from July 1-July 3, 1863.  The next day, American Independence Day, the battle and our bloody Civil War was all but over.   Lincoln remembered their sacrifice – and he urged his listeners then – and I submit, now – to do more than that.

We have all heard his words since grade school.  But just for today,  in the privacy of your own home, or at the beach, or at the mall, try something different.  Take 3 minutes and read it.  In the time it takes the microwave to heat my morning coffee – read it s-l-o-w-l-y.  Feel what the author did 14 months after 9/17. Only 4 months after the awesome Battle of Gettysburg.  To those few who glibly  use the word “secession” today for political gain,  for shock value, or for air time,  hold your tongues today.  

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 battle-field 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 

Soldiers’ National Cemetery Dedication

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

November 19, 1863

Our form of government is still “new”  in the long view of history.  An experiment.  From the start it did not eliminate “factions” but set them loose on each other.   Free opposition and free participation.  Here you can oppose the people across the street and the people in power.  But they can oppose you. Democracy takes tolerance.  Participation means more than voting – although half of us do not do even that.  Get involved in what Lincoln called “the unfinished work.”   That may mean sacrifice on our part.  Click off  “Dancing with the Stars” once a month and go to a town hall meeting.    If that sacrifice seems too much, there is a field in Maryland you might remember on 9/17.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>