On Decoration Day in 1871, Frederick Douglass spoke these words to a large crowd at Arlington National Cemetery: “We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers … we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.” Douglass not only reflected on the meaning of sacrifice to millions of Americans who had broke the chains of bondage, but he also addressed the need of remembering them. His words, nearly 150 years old, still resonate with us today.
In just two days, Americans across the country will commemorate this special holiday. Some will visit cemeteries and plant flags at the headstones of veterans, and others will simply celebrate the freedoms they have.
No matter how you choose to commemorate Memorial (or Decoration) Day, we hope these words of Civil War veterans inspire you to continue their legacies by saving history.
Brigadier General Isaac F. Shepard, who was wounded at Wilson’s Creek and led hundreds of Union troops throughout the war in the Western and Trans-Mississippi theaters, addressed a crowd of veterans, soldiers, and civilians at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri in 1870. “These all gave themselves a willing sacrifice and laid down their lives in defense of immutable principles, of equal rights, of universal freedom,” Shepard said. He continued, “It is fitting, then, that we make our annual pilgrimage to their graves.”
In 1884, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. gave one of his most well-known speeches at a New Hampshire Grand Army of the Republic Post on Memorial Day. For Holmes, Memorial Day is the day “we do honor to the dead in terms that must sometimes embrace the living.” He went on to embrace the uncertainty of the future, “Even if those who come after us are to forget all that we hold dear, and the future is to teach and kindle its children in ways as yet unrevealed, it is enough for us that this day is dear and sacred.”
The famous Brigadier General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain continued to encourage fellow veterans to pass on the legacies of themselves and their comrades at a 1906 Memorial Day commemoration and monument dedication. Chamberlain said to the crows, “Then it is for yourselves – to testify how you honor such sacrifice, and hold it as highest well-doing, part of your own worth.” Simply put, he challenged the living to “remember the cost at which your peace, your faith, your honor were vindicated, your country lifted from doubt to truth.”
Just as Douglass, Shepard, Holmes, and Chamberlain stated in their speeches, it is for us the living to remember and honor those who “gave the last full measure of devotion.” We honor them by sharing their stories, visiting battlefields and cemeteries, teaching the next generation, and forever studying who they were. We do this by preserving and saving their history.