Regrettably, I only recognized the significance of Memorial Day a few years ago. Somewhere between that time and my childhood, I grew accustomed to the idea that while watching images of Memorial Day services on TV, it was really the beginning of summer, barbecues and a day off from school, and later, work.
But amidst the current struggles in the eternal battle for freedom and liberty, I gained a new admiration and respect for those who have fought and died for this country, and I began to feel compelled to remember our fallen heroes, who died in the field of honor.
Rev. Dr. Frank Jewell’s historic sermon delivered at an 1875 Memorial Day celebration in California, informs us that all of history’s great nations have held up their heroes in one way or another, so that future generations may produce new heroes to fill their shoes. But what is unique to America about the remembrance of our heroes is that, as Jewell says, “it springs not from a monarch’s edict, but from millions of grateful, loyal hearts.”
Jewell describes how Americans began celebrating Memorial Day after the Civil War:
In 1864, thousands of our sons and brothers who had worn the blue were sleeping in soldiers’ graves all through the Southern States, and those who would could not and those who would not visit them or do them honor. Amid the beauties of the vernal bloom, the women of the South went forth to strew flowers on the graves of their slain.
Immediately those whose dusky brows had been baptized with the sparkling dews of Freedom, and knowing to whom they owed their emancipation, anxious to recognize their obligations to the vicarious sufferings, toil and death of those who slept in the unhonored graves, and with a love and devotion as lofty as ever thrilled a human heart went forth to field and wood, and gathered the wild flowers in their beauty. Under the cover of darkness, only relieved by the twinkling stars, they stole softly and silently to the slighted graves of our fallen heroes; and bedewing them with tears and breathing benedictions over them, reverently and tenderly laid thereon their humble floral offerings.
Beautiful and fitting initiation of a custom which is now fully enshrined in the hearts of us all, and shall be continued by our children’s children to the end of time. As beautiful and touching and well-nigh as religiously sacred as the offerings of the women who came to the sepulcher, very early in the morning, while it was yet dark, for fear of the Jews, bringing spices with which to anoint the body of their Lord. Each recognized in the one whose grave they blessed; a Savior, from degrading chains, to a heritage of manhood. But what is it that we celebrate, and why do we feel called upon to continue this beautiful and touching observance? Like those who originated the custom, we feel that we are debtors to those who, living or dead, became a part of that great holocaust of blood, which stained so many fields of our land, and made so many decks slippery with human gore.
Jewell goes on to contrast the Civil War to our other wars and America to other great nations and points out that it was the American Civil War, which settled “the last great conflict for freedom, and that was deserving of such memorialization:
But we are not to forget that it is not alone the personal heroism manifested, that justifies these memorial demonstrations. It was not a mere match of prowess or display of personal courage. It was not a mere exhibition of matchless endurance and patient suffering for championship. It was not a mere gladiatorial combat for the entertainment and admiration of the on-looking Nations. It was an issue between right and wrong; between political truth and heresy; between preservation and destruction. It was a conflict for the life of our nationality, “the green graves of our sires, God and our native land.” In vain all the struggles of the past; in vain all the sufferings of the heroes of the Mayflower; in vain the struggles of our Revolutionary sires; in vain the blood that crimsoned Bunker Hill and Lexington, Monmouth and Yorktown, had not America’s sons shown themselves worthy custodians of freedom’s lofty heritage.
It was the last great conflict for freedom, the point of history upon which hung the hopes of freedom’s lovers among all nations. It was the culmination of a conflict of a thousand years.
It was for this Americans became compelled to honor our fallen heroes. Not those who served, but those proclaimed “dead upon the field of honor.”
Jewell declared to the “comrades of the Grand Army of the Republic,” at the Memorial Day celebration:
To the life-long enjoyment of the peaceful heritage your valor helped to win – to our sanctuaries, our homes, our hearts, we receive and welcome you. Never was the Angel that records the deeds of true heroes made busier than when your brave hearts and strong hands furnished him employment. Your bravery challenged and received the homage of the world. Great interests confided to your hands were not betrayed, and a grateful nation shall continue to pay you honor. Our children shall be taught to lisp your names with reverence, and our children’s children shall moisten your resting places with their tears. Ye heroes of many a hard and well-fought battle, we will never, never forget the story of your heroism. Our youth shall emulate your virtues. Future generations shall study your record, and transmit to others the story of your sacrifice; and those who, in after years, shall join in the services of the Soldiers’ Memorial Day, inspired by your glorious example as they drop the garland upon your patriot grave, shall lift the hand to Heaven and say, “THIS SHALL BE LIBERTY’S HOME FOREVER.”
H/T: Wallbuilders for Rev. Dr. Jewell’s complete sermon, “The Nation’s Dead.”
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