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May 27, 2024

Memorial Day: More Than Honoring Lives Lost in American Wars

It was the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation that renewed America after the divisive period of the Civil War.

Despite America being currently shaken to its foundation, we are a blessed nation with holidays like Memorial Day, which remind us of values that provide actual solutions to our insurmountable problems.

Most people rightly associate Memorial Day with paying homage to those who gave their lives for America in war. It is one of America’s most patriotic holidays because of doing just that — honoring those who gave their lives for America and what it stands for: justice, equal opportunity, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But the holiday has roots that go back to the aftermath of the Civil War, when America was as or more divided than it is today. The Civil War cost at least 620,000 men — a greater cost than all of America’s successive wars combined.

The United States was so divided after the Civil War that many thought reconciliation impossible. Yet forgiveness began with humble and virtuous actions from the vanquished South, not the victorious North.

On April 25, 1866, a group of women from Columbus, Mississippi, chose to visit Friendship Cemetery — the burial ground for about 1,600 men who died at the Battle of Shiloh — for the purpose of honoring the dead with decorations of flowers. At the time, Columbus, like the rest of the South, was occupied by Union Army forces, and some townspeople were fearful of creating new animosity if the decorations favored Confederate over Union graves.

The prayerful Columbus women had no such intention despite having heard about the Union’s cavalier mass burial treatment of Confederate Army fatalities on Northern battlefields. And so it was that their equal decoration of the graves of both sides became a catalyst for a national reconciliation movement.

Just a few days later, a second claimant for originating Decoration Day took place on Belle Isle, located on the James River in Richmond, Virginia — the capital of the Confederacy. On May 30, 1866, women placed bouquets of flowers on the graves of Union soldiers who passed away at the Confederate prisoner of war camp located there.

Despite the war’s staggering death toll and Confederates having inflicted far more casualties on the North than the Union did on the South, President Abraham Lincoln expressed no blame or bitterness toward the Confederacy. In his Second Inaugural Address, he held both sides — the North and the South — accountable for this most costly war.

Decoration Day came to be known as a Day of Reconciliation and commemoration to honor those lost while fighting the Civil War, but its observance was not consistent for many years. The contribution of officers and soldiers from the South in winning the Spanish-American War in 1898 provided a catalyst for erecting what came to be known as the Reconciliation Monument in Arlington Cemetery, a project overseen by four presidents and finally unveiled in 1914 by President Woodrow Wilson.

After the United States’ sacrifices in World War I and World War II, it was recognized that the nation needed a reconciliation and commemoration holiday to honor American military personnel who died in all wars. What started out as Decoration Day after the Civil War now became a national holiday, Memorial Day, in 1968.

Americans have been unique in being willing to sacrifice because of their transcendent belief that all people have natural rights that come from God rather than from rulers or government. The Declaration of Independence affirmed the equality of all people and that they were endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And just because it took nearly 200 years for that vision to be fully realized does not diminish the founding based on those ideals. Thus, when Americans sacrifice their lives in military service, we should remember that it was not just to defend the United States, but it was also to uphold the natural rights and moral values associated with the nation’s founding that inspire others worldwide.

When the Puritans departed England in 1630 for the New World, under the Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company and sponsorship from the British Crown, they had no idea what independence and the future of the American government would look like a century and a half later. Their leader and future governor, John Winthrop, had a vision taken from Matthew 5:14-16, asserting that they were to be an example for the rest of the world. Upon leaving England and again before arriving in Massachusetts aboard the ship Arabella — a Latin name meaning “yielding to prayer” — Winthrop declared to his people their purpose quite clearly: “We shall be as a ‘City upon a Hill,’ the eyes of all people are upon us.”

The governing guidelines for that “City” would in part turn out to be the U.S. Constitution, which became one of America’s most important exports to the world. Writing about the benefits of the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson stated, “We feel that we are acting under obligations not confined to the limits of our society. It is impossible not to be sensible that we are acting for all mankind.” Now, 200 years later, America has the world’s longest-surviving constitution. And many have sought to learn from the United States because of the captivating ideals at the center of the world’s longest-surviving constitution.

In sum, Memorial Day means more than remembering and honoring those who died in military service to the country. It means connecting with a heritage that began with a courageous and faithful group of founders who risked everything for the birth of freedom and the establishment of America as a “City upon a Hill.” And it is particularly appropriate in these trying times to remember that it was the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation that renewed America after the divisive period of the Civil War, when the nation suffered its greatest wartime destruction and loss of life.

Memorial Day, rightly understood, provides inspiration and depth to rediscover and restore the ideals that made America great.

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