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This essay appeared in slightly different form last year, but by popular request, I again publish the first Memorial Day proclamation for this weekend. In its words lie the essence of what people used to call Decoration Day, and, by implication, those values this nation holds in common. Memorial Day is about what unites us, not what divides us.

The historical origins of Memorial Day date back to the days after the Civil War when towns decorated the graves of soldiers who had died in that conflict. Hence the other name for this holiday, “Decoration Day.” Waterloo, New, York was officially recognized by Congress as the first city to officially hold a Decoration Day, which it celebrated on May 5, 1866.

It is generally agreed that the first national celebration began with the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans. An unknown veteran wrote to GAR Adjutant-General N.P. Chipman who took the idea to GAR Commander-in-Chief General John Logan who issued the proclamation that appears below. In 1887, Congress finally recognized Memorial Day as a legal holiday for all government employees.

The South, however, held their own separate holiday for Confederate dead until after World War I when Memorial Day was changed to honor dead from all wars. So in a large sense, this holiday acknowledges not only the sacrifices of our service men and women but also the coming together of the nation.

This weekend, above all, marks what we Americans hold in common not our differences. There is no better statement of that than what Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Dedicated to the Proposition that all men are created equal.” That belief in equity, in the level playing field, is what has distinguished this nation.

The experience of the American people since [the Revolution]–and in many ways the key theme of American history–has been that each succeeding generation applied this principle to dealing with the latest attempt to tilt the playing field.

What these generations share stems not merely from an intellectual or even emotional attachment to equity, but something elemental to the very meaning of the human condition: hope. Farmers dripping sweat on red clay, nervous families juggling monthly bill payments, and workers fearing a layoff notice still live under pinched horizons where hope can seem elusive. For them–as for all of us–what we proudly call the American Dream represents not merely a balance sheet of our material accounting, but more importantly a moral tally of the ideal that everyone can achieve the promise of their talents and character.

General Logan recognized this in his proclamation, writing:

Let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude.

I write this as a first generation American whose family fled political tyranny. That I am free to write whatever I wish this day leads me to offer humble thanks to all those who gave their lives to assure Lincoln’s words and those of the Founders he evoked are not merely dried ink on yellowed paper but living ideals that have moved–and continue to move–Americans to make the ultimate sacrifice.

No. 11
Headquarters, Grand Army of the Republic
Washington, D.C., May 5, 1868

I. The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated 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, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose, among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foe? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and found mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic.If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude,—the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

II. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

III. Department commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.

By command of:

JOHN A. LOGAN,
Commander-in-Chief.

N. P. CHIPMAN,
Adjutant-General.

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