Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Meaning of Memorial Day

Fredericksburg National Cemetery
Each year on this weekend, I'm reminded of the powerful message of Memorial Day.

This morning, I thought about twenty-year-old Corporal William G. Smith, who was instantly killed with a bullet to the head while charging the railroad cut on July 1st, 1863 at Gettysburg. I think about his father Robert, a newspaper editor in Haverstraw New York, who set out on an ultimately unsuccessful journey to Gettysburg to recover his son's body. And I think of the unmarked grave where Corporal Smith's remains likely reside on Cemetery Hill today.

I think about the men of the 1st Minnesota, and their sacrificial charge on July 2nd, 1863 at Gettysburg. I think of the fifty-two Minnesotans buried on Cemetery Hill, and of the simple yet powerful memorial erected by their surviving comrades, the very first memorial erected on the Gettysburg Battlefield:
All time is the millennium of their glory.
I think of the 15,300 United States soldiers buried in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, 12,000 of them unknown.

I think of these men and all that they lost, but I also think more broadly about the lessons they can teach us. Memorial Day was born out of a sad necessity. Some 700,000 men lost their lives in the Civil War (we will never know a precisely accurate number). The war resulted from the birth defects present at our nation's founding: racially-based slavery. Through four bloody years of savage combat, our ancestors saved our Union and ended slavery. Yet those four years created their own bitter legacies and lasting acrimony, and they failed to solve the issues of racial bias at the root of conflict.

In Gettysburg, site of Lincoln's call for a "new birth of freedom," we can find another, obscure cemetery that contains the remains of thirty African American Civil War soldiers. These men fought to preserve their country, and yet were laid to rest segregated from the cemetery where Lincoln spoke his immortal words. For years, stretching into the twentieth century, the black community in Gettysburg held its own, segregated Memorial Day observances.

It's a mistake to think we have moved beyond the legacies of this war. We need only to pay attention to the events and heated debates of the last year to understand this.

When I contemplate the meaning of Memorial Day, I often remember the poignant words Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry. In December of 1881, Congressman Dawes wrote to his wife:
My dear wife:--I have today worshiped at the shrine of the dead. I went over to the Arlington Cemetery. It was a beautiful morning and the familiar scenes so strongly impressed upon me during my young manhood, were pleasant. Many times that I went over that road, admiring the beautiful city and great white capital, with its then unfinished dome, going to hear the great men of that day in Congress. An ambitious imagination then builded castles of the time when I might take my place there. Now at middle age, with enthusiasm sobered by hard fights and hard facts, I ride, not run with elastic step over the same road, with this ambition at least realized, and with warmth enough left in my heart to enjoy it. My friends and comrades, poor fellows, who followed my enthusiastic leadership in those days, and followed it to the death which by a merciful Providence I escaped, lie here, twenty-four of them, on the very spot where our winter camp of 1861-1862, was located. I found every grave and stood beside it with uncovered head. I looked over nearly the full 16,000 head-boards to find the twenty-four, but they all died alike and I was determined to find all. Poor little Fenton who put his head above the works at Cold Harbor and got a bullet through his temples, and lived three days with his brains out, came to me in memory as fresh as one of my own boys of today, and Levi Pearson, one of the three brothers of Company A, who died for their country in the sixth regiment, and Richard Gray, Paul Mulleter, Dennis Kelly, Christ Bundy, all young men, who fell at my side and under my command. For what they died, I fight a little longer. Over their graves I get inspiration to stand for all they won in establishing our government upon freedom, equality, justice, liberty, and protection to the humblest.
 Dawes's words speak to me. For Memorial Day is not just a day to remember our deceased soldiers, but also a call to action to heed the lessons they might teach us. For what they died, I fight a little longer. Over their graves I get inspiration to stand for all they won.

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