Editor’s note: This is a speech I delivered on Memorial Day 2015 at the invitation of American Legion Post 231 in Calistoga at the Veterans’ Memorial at Logvy Park.
When we gather on holidays, it is usually to mark a date – the anniversary of a great or tragic event, or the birth of a person worth remembering.
In November, we will gather here again to honor our veterans, marking the date and hour that ended World War I, the most horrible war humankind had known to that point and an event with consequences we live with to this day.
On Christmas, Easter, and Passover, we gather in churches and with family to mark important events of religious history. On New Year’s, we mark the flip of the calendar and a promise of new hope. In the winter, we get days off to remember our two greatest presidents and also a civil rights leader who reminded us that the legacy of those two presidents belongs to all Americans equally.
Memorial Day is different. Today, we gather not to mark a date or time, but rather an idea.
Memorial Day began as a spontaneous event on both sides of the divide of the Civil War. Families and towns would pick a day to decorate the graves of the brave men who had died in that awful conflict. It was celebrated on different days in different places, and for a good many decades there were separate Union and Confederate Memorial Days.
But as the years went by, and the dividing lines of the war blurred into memory, Memorial Day became more standardized – the end of May became customary, and the last Monday in May became official in 1971. Today, the day is dedicated not to the Union or Confederate dead, or even to the dead of the Civil War, but to all the men and women who have given their lives in the service of the United States.
Through all the changes and the differing observances of Memorial Day, the idea has remained the same: to honors those who did not come home.
The people who survived our wars — both the veterans who fought and the civilians who tended the home front — were able to tell their stories. They were able to write new stories of life after the war.
For those men and women who did not come home, their stories stopped on the battlefield.
The idea of Memorial Day then is to honor their sacrifice, and make sure that these men and women remain part of our stories, even if their voices were silenced too soon.
It is for the idea that their untold stories should not be forgotten that we gather every Memorial Day.
I grew up in Virginia, within sight of Washington, D.C. In that part of the country, the nation’s wars are easy to remember and close to home. The landscape is dotted with battlefields, from the Revolution – Yorktown, Trenton, Germantown and Brandywine. From the War of 1812 – Bladensburg, Baltimore, Sacketts Harbor. And the many, many Civil War encounters, from the great engagements at Antietam and Gettysburg to the small and obscure – Brandy Station, Sayler’s Creek and Rivers Bridge.
At the end of the street where I grew up was a circular mound of earth – the remnants of Fort Willard, one of the string of Union forts that guarded the approaches to Washington. So close are reminders of the war in that part of the country that they become a place where kids ride their bikes and play with hardly a thought to what these sites represent.
Washington, D.C. is full of reminders of war. It is home to a wide variety of memorials to important military figures and to their wars – Korea, World Wars I and II, and the stark, vivid tribute to the dead of Vietnam.
When the Vietnam War memorial was proposed, there was a great outcry, loud voices condemning the design, saying it was too spare, too modern, did not depict the men and women who struggled and died there. Some called it a “gash” in the landscape of the city.
Those critics were quieted quickly once the memorial opened in 1982. Any of you who have visited that site know how powerful it is – stark black granite panels containing the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in that war. From that wall, you can turn around to see the natural beauty of Washington, and the towering Washington Monument looming overhead, but it remains a place private and intimate.
Looking at the granite panels is startling. Not only do you see the names of the dead engraved on it, but you can see yourself and your fellow visitors reflected in the highly polished stone.
That monument, to me, embodies what Memorial Day is about: it commemorates and names the dead, whose stories ended on the battlefield. At the same time, the ghostly reflection of the living on the wall draws us into the ranks of the dead, showing that they are part of our ongoing story even if their voices are now stilled.
Being at that memorial can be overwhelming, even for those of us too young to have been deeply touched by the war. The sight of grown men weeping, visitors lost in contemplation, people running their fingers over the names – friends, family, or just names unknown: quiet, private moments playing out in the middle of a bustling crowd. It is a powerful reminder of the real and ongoing cost of a war even decades after it ends.
Little else in Washington, D.C. is so intimate and raw. Most of the city’s monuments and buildings are dedicated to the projection of energy and power. They are great gleaming temples of marble, towers of glass, all with flags snapping smartly from their poles. Standing on the west front of the Capitol, looking down the Mall to the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, it is easy to get caught up in the pomp and pride that drives the city.
But if you look a little to the left, there is something different to see. Tucked between the Pentagon and the glass towers of Rosslyn, the exploding skyline of Northern Virginia, is a green space.
It’s not easy from the Capitol to tell what this green space is for – trees, lawns, a grand house on a small hill.
Drawing a little closer, it becomes clear that this is not a park or private estate. Row upon row of white headstones line the rolling lawns – more than 400,000 on about 625 acres, starting with the first man interred there, Pvt. William Henry Christman of 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, buried there along with three comrades on May 13 of 1864.
This place, now known as Arlington National Cemetery, began in a sense as an act of revenge. That gracious house on the hill in the midst of the green space was once the home of Robert E. Lee, a man who turned down an offer from Abraham Lincoln to command the Union army and instead elected to follow his native state into rebellion.
Within days of Virginia’s secession, federal troops under Gen. Irvin McDowell seized the estate. Three years later, the government formally confiscated it and Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs began the practice of burying Union dead there, in part to ensure that the Lee family would never be able to reoccupy the property.
What began as an act of anger, however, became a place of healing. Formally, it was a Union cemetery, yet hundreds of Confederate dead were buried on the property, alongside their former adversaries. Although in the early years after the war, family members were denied the right to decorate those Confederate graves, by 1906, the wounds of war had healed enough that the United Daughters of the Confederacy was granted permission to erect a monument to their fallen young men, a monument finally unveiled to the public in 1914.
So like Memorial Day itself, Arlington National Cemetery transformed from a symbol of division into a unifying force, honoring all those Americans who had died in battle.
That cemetery now stands in full view of the power and majesty of Washington, D.C.’s government buildings. It is a reminder to the president, lawmakers, bureaucrats, and military officers who control the levers of power of the enormous individual costs of war.
It was at Arlington that the first truly national “Memorial Day” was celebrated, on May 30 of 1868. About 5,000 people gathered to decorate more than 20,000 graves and to hear James Garfield, a former Union officer later to become president, give some remarks about the soldiers who were buried around him.
“We do not know one promise these men made,” the future president said that day, “one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”
There is, indeed, no way to know all of the stories of the men and women who have died in America’s wars. Many of them are lost to history, some unknown or forgotten even in their own time, many more who died so long ago that there are no family members or comrades left to recall them.
But we do know that on at least one day out of the year, every one of them will be remembered in some way. The idea of Memorial Day, the idea of our gathering here today, and all the other gatherings around the country, great and small, is to be sure that these men and women remain part of our ongoing story, a story that they sacrificed everything to ensure.