Editorial : What we remember Monday
Abraham Lincoln wrote of the Revolutionary War, "It breathed forth famine, swam in blood, and rode on fire; and long, long after, the orphan's cry and the widow's wail continued to break the sad silence that ensued."
He had in mind just one war, but his description applies to all. The men and women whose sacrifices we will acknowledge Monday knew war as Lincoln described it.
Lincoln's words are, of course, most often associated with the Civil War. It was the Civil War's dead, North and South, who were the first to be remembered on Memorial Day. Honoring the graves of the war dead began before the close of the Civil War. In the South, the town of Columbus, Miss., held observances for fallen Union and Confederate soldiers in 1866. Waterloo, N.Y., is the birthplace of Memorial Day in the North.
Officially, in 1868, Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic issued a general order designating May 30 of that year "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."
At Gettysburg, several years earlier, the battlefield was strewn not with flowers but with dead horses and dead men, more than 10,000 soldiers, most of them Southerners.
What good could possibly be made of this horror with just ceremonial words and memories and the invocation of the cadences of the Declaration of Independence? On Nov. 19, 1863, at Gettysburg, Lincoln, reinterpreted what had occurred just a few months before and transformed Americans' understanding of the nation's founding mission, as it was conceived even before the flawed Constitution was written.
"Lincoln is here [at the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg cemetery] not only to sweeten the air of Gettysburg, but to clear the infected atmosphere of American history itself," Gary Wills has written, "tainted with official sins and inherited guilt. He would cleanse the Constitution - not... by burning an instrument that countenanced slavery. He altered the document from within, by appeal from its letter to the spirit, subtly changing the recalcitrant stuff of that legal compromise... he performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight-of-hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting....
"Lincoln ... revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely."
Absent Lincoln, Monday will nevertheless be meaningful. In these frantic times, when history's hold on us has weakened, Memorial Day can be about absent family members, but it will - if we seek it - recall founding principles and the ideas for which so many have sacrificed so utterly. In Lincoln's words, "to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."
The Civil War was not over. As Lincoln spoke, its outcome was uncertain, as so much is today. Lincoln's short talk did not confront the war itself, even as it paid tribute to its casualties. Rather, at Gettysburg, he reminded his listeners to "re-adopt the Declaration of Independence," as he had put it years before. He did so because the Declaration, rather than the Constitution, was and is the purest expression of who we are, of what we intend, and for what we fight. Lincoln directed his listeners' attention away from their losses, their anxieties, their anger, and their disagreements, and toward the unfinished business of the Declaration, the expression of the nation's founding and revolutionary idea, and the implicit challenge of each Memorial Day.