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The Meaning of Memorial Day



One among our holidays alone bears the name and the specific call to remembrance: Memorial Day.

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a post-Civil War holiday. It was first instituted by the Grand Army of the Republic, on May 30, 1868, “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, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, hamlet, and churchyard in the land. If the Fourth of July renews the memory of the birth of the nation, Decoration Day renews the memory of those who gave their lives that that nation might live. Or again, in Lincoln’s words, “That this nation shall have a new birth of freedom.”

After World War I, Memorial Day was expanded to commemorate the lives of all those who have died in service to our country. In the past decade, hundreds have been added to the roster of those whose lives and service we are summoned today to remember.

But how should we the living best honor these lives and those memories? In what manner and spirit should we remember? Why Memorial Day today? Our ebook, “The Meaning of Memorial Day,” explores these questions with selections from American authors and statesmen, including Herman Melville, Ernie Pyle, Louisa May Alcott, Frederick Douglass, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Each selection includes a brief introduction by the editors with guiding questions for discussion.

Memorial Day: An American Holiday
The Origins and Traditions of Memorial Day
John A. Logan, General Orders No. 11
James A. Garfield, Decoration Day Address
Joseph B. Foraker, Address at Arlington Cemetery
Calvin Coolidge, “Freedom and Its Obligations”
Ronald Reagan, Remarks at a Memorial Day Ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., “In Our Youths Our Hearts Were Touched with Fire”
Pat C. Hoy II, “Homage to Vietnam”

Why Go to War? The Reasons of Nations and the Motives of Men
Christopher Memminger, Declaration of Secession of South Carolina
Sullivan Ballou, Letter to Sarah
James Sloan Gibbons, “We Are Coming, Father Abraham”
Lindley H. Miller, Marching Song of the First Arkansas Regiment 
George F. Root, “The Battle Cry of Freedom”
William H. Barnes, “The Battle Cry of Freedom” (Southern version)
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
   LESSON PLAN: Anne Continetti, Understanding and Analyzing the Gettysburg Address
Frederick Douglass, “Why Should a Colored Man Enlist?”
Woodrow Wilson, Address to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War
Joyce Kilmer, “The Peacemaker”
Franklin D. Roosevelt, “A Date Which Will Live in Infamy”
Dwight D. Eisenhower, Order of the Day: 6 June 1944
Franklin D. Roosevelt, D-Day Prayer
George W. Bush, Address to Joint Session of Congress Following 9/11 Attacks

The Experience of War
. . . By Those Who Fought
Walter Kittredge, “Tenting on the Old Camp-Ground” 
Herman Melville, “Shiloh: A Requiem”
Stephen E. Ambrose, “Night on the Line,” from Citizen Soldiers
E. B. Sledge, “Brave Men Lost,” from With the Old Breed
Ernie Pyle, Stories from the Front
    “Brave Men, Brave Men”
    “The Death of Captain Waskow”
    “A Long Thin Line of Personal Anguish”

. . . And Those Who Care for Them
Louisa May Alcott, “A Night,” from Hospital Sketches
Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Mrs. Bixby
Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Fanny McCullough
Archibald MacLeish, “Memorial Rain”
John Ciardi, “A Box Comes Home”
Ninette W. Lowater, “Roy’s Decoration Day”

Honoring the Fallen Dead
The Dead
Michael R. Strobl, “A Marine’s Journey Home” 
Richard Watson Gilder, “The Dead Comrade”
Theodore O’Hara, “Bivouac of the Dead”
Mary B. C. Slade, “Soldier’s Memorial Day”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Decoration Day”
Joyce Kilmer, “Rouge Bouquet”
John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”
Moina Bell Michael, “We Shall Keep the Faith”
Henry James, “The Story of a Year”

The Cause
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Voluntaries”
Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address
Francis Miles Finch, “The Blue and the Gray”
Frederick Douglass, Address at the Monument of the Unknown Dead

Monuments and Memorials
Herman Melville, “Memorials: On the Slain at Chickamauga”
Rutherford B. Hayes, Address at the Unveiling of the Soldiers’ Monument
James Whitcomb Riley, “A Monument for the Soldiers”
William Hubbard, “A Meaning for Monuments”

APPENDIX: Caitrin Nicol, “A Very Peculiar God”

ABOUT THE COVER: Ellen White, Planting 20,000 Flags on Memorial Day

WATCH: John McCain makes remarks on Memorial Day at a May 25, 2011 Memorial Day book forum for WSPWH

WATCH: William Kristol on Memorial Day and Other American Holidays

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