Why do we celebrate Memorial Day?

The May 2015 issue of The American Legion magazine (www.legion.org) includes a nineteenth-century speech by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. recalling his experiences as a young first lieutenant with the 20th Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers during the War Between the States. Best known as a U. S. Supreme Court justice, Holmes was seriously wounded at battles in Maryland and Virginia. On May 30, 1884, he spoke to veterans in Keane, New Hampshire recalling many comrades who were killed in the War.

Holmes explained in his talk that he had heard a young man ask “why people still kept up Memorial Day.” Today, more than 120 years later, probably most young people have little knowledge of this American history—or, any of it, for that matter. He proposed an answer for “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.”

Justice Holmes went on to affirm that “soldiers who were doing their best to kill one another felt less of personal hostility, I am very certain, than some who were not imperilled (sic).”

Sadly, we are left with a legacy of perpetual hatred for American Southerners and their fight in a War of Independence.

Holmes noted that he had heard from “those who had been gallant and distinguished officers on the Confederate side say they had no such feeling.” Of course, “We believed that it was most desirable that the North should win.” But, he said, “we equally believed that those who stood against us held just as sacred convictions that were opposite of ours, and we respected them as every man with a heart must respect those who give all for their belief.”

Holmes continued, “The soldiers of the war need no explanations; they can join in commemorating a soldier’s death with feeling not different in kind, whether he fell toward them or by their side.” Memorial Day “celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith…the condition of acting greatly.

“To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching.  More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out.”

(Dr. Clyde Wilson, a professor emeritus of history at the University of South Carolina, wrote in an Abbeville Institute blog {abbevilleinstitute.org}: “The Confederate States of America was characterized by a mobilization and casualties far beyond that ever experienced by any other Americans at any time in their history…It is estimated that 85 percent of the eligible male population was mobilized in the War of Independence and one of every four Southern white men was dead at the end of the War—Northern losses were 1 in 10”—mostly immigrants.)

Justice Holmes continued: “When it was felt so deeply as it was on both sides that a man ought to take part in the war…was that feeling simply the requirement of a local majority that their neighbors should agree with them? I think not: I think the feeling was right—in the South as in the North.

“ I believe from the bottom of my heart that our memorial halls and statues and tablets, the tattered flags of our regiments gathered in the Statehouses, are worth more to our young men by way of chastening and inspiration than the monuments of another hundred years of peaceful life could be.

“But even if I am wrong, even if those who come after us are to forget all that we hold dear, and the future is to teach and kindle its children in ways as yet unrevealed, it is enough for us that this day is dear and sacred.”


About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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