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, Penn., 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.
Gary Wills, in "Lincoln at Gettysburg" (Simon and Schuster, 1992), describes that desolate battlefield just after the guns quieted and just months before Lincoln spoke at its dedication as a cemetery: "rotting horseflesh and manflesh - thousands of fermenting bodies, with gas-distended bellies, deliquescing in the July heat. For hygienic reasons, the five thousand horses (or mules) had to be consumed by fire, trading the smell of burning flesh for that of decaying flesh. Eight thousand human bodies were scattered over, or (barely) under the ground. Suffocating teams of soldiers, Confederate prisoners, and dragooned civilians slid the bodies beneath a minimal covering, as fast as possible - crudely posting the names of the Union dead with sketchy information on boards, not stopping to figure out what units the Confederate bodies had belonged to. It was work to be done hugger-mugger or not at all, fighting clustered bluebottle flies black on the earth, shoveling and retching by turns. The buzzards themselves had not stayed to share in this labor - days of incessant shelling had scattered them far off."
What good could possibly be made of this horror with just words and memories and the invocation of the cadences of the Declaration of Independence? But, on Nov. 19, 1863, in the 272 words of his speech 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.
As Wills puts it, "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, 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.... "
With 272 words, with his Gettysburg Address, "Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely."
Absent Lincoln, Monday will nevertheless be meaningful. Even in these frantic times, when history's hold on us has weakened, Memorial Day can be about absent fathers and brothers and sons, but it can also be about more than that. It can recall founding principles and the ideas for which so many have sacrificed so utterly.
As Lincoln told the thousands who heard him at Gettysburg, "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 ... "
The Civil War was not over. As Lincoln spoke, its outcome was uncertain. 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. And, he directed his listeners' attention away from their losses, their anxieties, and their anger, and toward the unfinished business of the Declaration, the nation's founding and revolutionary idea, and the implicit challenge of each Memorial Day.