Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day 2008: 'Altogether Fitting and Proper'

In honor of Memorial Day, I'd like to share this guest column by Lowman Henry on the true meaning of the holiday — "A time to remember those who paid the ultimate price for freedom."

'Altogether Fitting and Proper'

By Lowman S. Henry

As a young boy growing up in the coal patch town of Herminie, Pennsylvania, the first holiday of the summer season was always an exciting one. Both my father and my mother were active in the local VFW post, so our family was always involved in preparations for the parade which would make its way from the VFW at one end of town to the fire hall at the other end.

This was not exactly a long distance, actually only a few blocks. But at that age marching with the scouts it seemed like quite a hike. The whole town gathered in front of the fire hall where red, white and blue wreaths adorned the town's memorial. There appropriate words were said about the sacrifices made for our freedom. And then, the pop-pop-pop of the honor guard's guns pierced the calm followed by the mournful strains of taps.

This same scene will play out again this Memorial Day in towns big and small all across America. Before adjourning to our backyard barbeques or hitting the mall for the day's shopping specials, many — hopefully all — Americans will take the time to reflect on the real reason for the holiday.

Our country has not always had a Memorial Day, although we have since the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord had heroic war dead deserving of the honor. Memorial Day as it is now celebrated had its origins in the Civil War era.

President Abraham Lincoln set the tone for the concept of a Memorial Day while delivering his address at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Noting that the gathering took place on a great battlefield of the civil war, Lincoln explained that: "We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that a nation might live."

The President went on in the most eloquent language of the ages to talk of the "brave men, living and dead, who struggled here" and how they "have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract." Lincoln thus gave rise to the concept that those who have died, and those who have served our nation, engaged in a "noble" task worthy of our honoring.

General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former soldiers and sailors, is generally credited with organizing the first Decoration Day, the name by which Memorial Day was first known, on May 30, 1868. General James Garfield, who would later serve as President of the United States, was the featured speaker at the first Decoration Day services held at Arlington National Cemetery. Following the services, more than 5,000 citizens helped decorate the graves of both union and confederate soldiers.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, the small town of Boalsburg — located near State College — had already established a Memorial Day tradition. According to legend, a teenaged girl by the name of Emma Hunter was laying flowers at her father's grave when she met an older woman, Elizabeth Meyer, who was placing flowers on her son's grave. The two women met, exchanged personal stories, and agreed to meet again the same day the following year. Others learned of the plan which grew into an event involving the entire town and a commemoration was held on July 4, 1865. The idea caught on and the rest, as they say, is history.

Unfortunately for tiny Boalsburg, history gives credit to Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. President Lyndon Johnson issued a declaration of such in 1966 because Waterloo made it an official community celebration on May 5, 1866. Thus, although Boalsburg held the first Memorial Day observance, the lack of official town action cost it formal recognition.

Regardless, the concept of setting aside one day each year to honor those who have died in the service of our nation has become an annual tradition. But, it was not until 1971 when Congress re-declared Memorial Day a national holiday that it came to be celebrated on the last Monday in May.

It is as President Lincoln said, "altogether fitting and proper that we should do this." On Memorial Day we should not only pause to remember, but we should heed the balance of Lincoln's words uttered that cold November day in Gettysburg. Lincoln appealed to the nation to "be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on."

The President was reminding us that the best way to honor our dead is for us to make sure the cause of freedom for which they died "shall not perish from the earth."

Lowman S. Henry is chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.

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