The Real Memorial Day: Oliver Wendell Holmes's Salute to a Momentous American Anniversary

The Real Memorial Day: Oliver Wendell Holmes's Salute to a Momentous American Anniversary

This article originally appeared in the Daily Beast

In 1884 Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. gave a remarkable speech in which he explained how grief and memory for the fallen dead unite the nation on Memorial Day.

Memorial Day got off to a bad start. In 1868, barely four years after the end of the Civil War, Gen. John Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order setting aside May 30 as a day for “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Lest his snub be too subtle, Logan went on to single out and exclude Southerners for their “rebellious tyranny.” Sectional wounds were still fresh, and they would not heal until some time after World War I, when both North and South at last began honoring the nation’s dead on the same day.

Before Logan issued his order, various localities in the South and the North had already set aside a commemorative day in late spring, thus assuring the availability of flowers, to honor the deaths and gravesites of fallen soldiers. Several of these observations took place while the war was still in progress. Of particular note is the observance that took place on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, S.C., on the site of a prisoner of war camp where more than 250 Union soldiers were buried in unmarked graves. Nearly 10,000 people, most of them freedmen, gathered in the freshly landscaped burial ground to commemorate the dead. Historian David W. Blight has called this “the first Memorial Day … What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”

For the rest of the 19th century, North and South celebrated Memorial Day–or Decoration Day, as it was also called–on different days. Some Southern cities chose the date of Stonewall Jackson’s death (May 10), while others went with Jefferson Davis’s birthday (June 3) or the date on which Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to Gen. William T. Sherman (April 26), thus marking the final end of hostilities.

Quibbling over dates aside, 19th century Americans did insistently observe a day of remembrance. The smallest towns mustered marching bands that would lead parades to the local graveyards, where speeches were given and Taps was played. This ritual is beautifully preserved in “Decoration Day,” the second movement of Charles Ives’s Holiday Symphony, in which you can hear a marching band going to the graveyard and then returning jubilantly home. Ives was born in 1874 and grew up in Danbury, Conn., where his father was the town bandleader, so in a sense what you’re hearing in his symphony is nothing less than aural reporting. And the day’s importance on the American calendar in the 19th century can be measured, at least a little, by the fact that Decoration Day is one of only four holidays that Ives chose to commemorate, the others being July 4, Thanksgiving, and Washington’s birthday.

Memorial Day cemented itself into the nation’s consciousness at the same time the national cemetery movement got underway. Gettysburg was famously the first site to have a graveyard set aside for the orderly and honorable interment of soldiers, and very quickly thereafter plans were laid to create a series of such cemeteries that today total more than 200. These plans, of course, were as practically necessary as they were high-minded, since the butcher’s bill of more than 600,000 casualties in the Civil War posed a mammoth job of identification and proper burial. The task of burying the dead at Gettysburg was nowhere near complete, for example, when Lincoln gave his commemorative address there five months after the battle.

Even in the cemeteries, however, sectionalism trumped mourning. For example, while some Confederate dead are buried in Arlington National Cemetery, the crown jewel of the national cemetery system, their families were forbidden to lay flowers on the graves until 1900 (the insult was both calculated and ironic, since before it did service as a final resting place for soldiers, Arlington had been the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee).

However, it must be emphasized that Civil War soldiers themselves were often the most vocal critics of such parochialism. Ambrose Bierce was one of the few notable American authors to see much combat in the war (fighting for the Union, he survived Shiloh and Chickamauga, among the conflict’s fiercest battles, and received a serious head wound at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain). Haunted by the war the rest of his life, Bierce reserved his bitterest scorn for those who did not honor all the dead: “The wretch, whate’er his life and lot/ Who does not love the harmless dead/ With all his heart and all his head– / May God forgive him, I shall not.”

Another big-hearted veteran was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the future Supreme Court justice, who delivered not one but two great speeches on the subject of Memorial Day. If any man had a right to be bitter, it was Holmes, who endured some of the war’s most vicious fighting and was shot three times in three different battles (he kept the Minie balls that wounded him for the rest of his life). Instead he was openly and insistently magnanimous. In his moving speech below, delivered at Keene, N.H., on May 30, 1884, the duty to honor fallen American soldiers without regard to affiliation was one of the first things on Holmes’s mind.

Oliver Wendell Holmes’s address, below, was delivered on Memorial Day, May 30, 1884, at Keene, NH, before John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic.

Not long ago I heard a young man ask why people still kept up Memorial Day, and it set me thinking of the answer. Not the answer that you and I should give to each other-not the expression of those feelings that, so long as you live, will make this day sacred to memories of love and grief and heroic youth–but an answer which should command the assent of those who do not share our memories, and in which we of the North and our brethren of the South could join in perfect accord…

Read the rest at the Daily Beast