Not in vain


We forget. It’s Memorial Day, but we forget. Too often we are swept up in the venal, horse race politics that dominate the cable, radio, and online yadda yadda, and we forget about what it means to be at war.

Abraham Lincoln saw war plainly. Of the Revolutionary War, he wrote: “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.”

Lincoln’s words are, of course, most often associated with the Civil War. Indeed, 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, New York, 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, Pennsylvania, several years before Memorial Day was institutionalized, 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 … 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, as we will offer Monday, and with the invocation of the Declaration’s cadences?

On Nov. 19, 1863, his speech just 272 words long, Lincoln reinterpreted what had occurred just a few months before, and transformed Americans’ understanding of their Constitution while he was at it.

As Wills puts it, “Lincoln is here [at the dedication ceremony] 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, 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 angry, disputative, even poisoned 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, set forth in the Declaration of Independence, 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 …”

We must remember all the honored dead, and the Declaration that named the idea for which they died.