On May 5, 1868, in General Order No. 11, General John A. Logan issued the order proclaiming the upcoming May 30th of that year to mark what came to be referred to as Decoration Day, now commonly called Memorial Day, to call the nation’s attention to the honored dead of the great Civil War. Until 1971 it continued to be celebrated each year on May 30, regardless of the day of the week on which the date fell. Then in a fit of unvarnished commercialism, Congress changed the marking of Memorial Day to the fourth Monday of May to allow everyone a “three-day weekend.” Various other national holidays, most notably the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, were likewise altered along these lines.
When I was a boy growing up in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Memorial Day in our town and family revolved around parades, ceremonies and other patriotic festivities. Although I never knew my maternal grandfather, who died at age 40, many of the soldiers from his command in the Great War of Co. H, 319th Infantry Regiment, 80th (“The Blue Ridge”) Division would descend on my grandmother’s house in Keezletown to celebrate his life, recall scenes from their tour of duty in the Meusse-Argonne, and renew acquaintances. How different the Memorial Days of my boyhood were from current practices. While remembrances are still held throughout the land, much of the holiday’s meaning has been subsumed within the spate of shopping specials and beach kick-off weekends by which the day had not been previously marked.
What have we lost? In his recent book Making Patriots, the great constitutional scholar Walter Berns alludes to Lincoln addressing the men of the 166th Ohio Regiment on the evening of August 22, 1864:
So it was that Lincoln … used his words and the occasion of the Civil War to promote a love of country, reminding us that as citizens we are bound to each other and across the generations by a cause we hold in common, that there is a price to be paid for what he called (in his address to the Ohio regiment) “our birthright,” and that we are indebted to those who have already paid it. So, too, a grateful nation erects monuments and memorials to him and the Founders, to the end that generations of Americans might stand in awe of them and of their words carved in the walls of the memorials; and it names its states, counties, cities, parks, boulevards, and schools after them. Their stories are the nation’s story, and telling it should be the nation’s business; in fact, it should be an important part of the civics curriculum in our schools. It is a way of inculcating in children a reverence for the past and its heroes, with the view of causing them to love their country. More generally, it is a way of preparing them to be citizens. We used to do all this, but it is rarely done today.
One of the fondest memories from childhood is sitting on my grandmother’s front porch of a summer’s evening listening to the old people talk. While this is a time-honored Southern tradition brought about by the region’s then-lack of air conditioning and the immediacy of extended families, I am sure variants of this tradition can be found in other parts of our country. My niece and nephew, five and nine, respectively, do not have the luxury of enjoying something similar, though at their age they probably would not find it a luxury. I’m not sure I did myself back then, and perhaps time has colored my memories. But I did learn many things from such encounters. I have vivid memories of my grandfather’s first sergeant, Bob Barlow from McKeesport, Pennsylvania, regaling me with tales of “dead Krauts” and swapping doughboy rats (rations) and smokes for “Heinie” Lugers, daggers, and helmets. It was from Mr. Barlow that I learned my first lesson in the hard truths of what soldiers fight for, namely not grandiloquent notions along the lines of dulce et docorum est pro patria mori but more simple, human concepts like “I dare not let my buddies down.”
History is writ large and small. In the end we act or choose not to based on the small associations of life — family, friends, community. We are bound together by shared memories — what Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory.”
So, gentle readers, on this Memorial Day I hope we can all gather to talk, enjoy good food, exchange tall tales, honor our cherished dead, and perhaps listen to the collective wisdom of our elders, adding again to the tapestry of this great nation.