Memorial Day for most of us remains a reminder that summer has begun. It’s a start of things to come for us, not a failure of people to return to our homes and our hearths. The flags come out alongside the potato salad and the sparklers and the speeches. Here in Indiana, Memorial Day heralds our famous Indy 500 race day. We’re in a party mood for the somberest of reasons. And while having our fun, at some moment someone or something interrupts our fun and calls us to recall, if only in passing, our living or shortly gone family veterans on this day. But that’s not what Memorial Day really is for. Its really a day to remember the fallen in war, this failure that has turned into a success for those who come after them.
It was called ‘Decoration Day‘ and was meant originally to remember the fallen of the Great Civil War or as Ada from Cold Mountain called it: “This war, this awful war.” It was an awful war. It was a cruel war. In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett sings a popular song of the day, “When This Cruel War Is Over” with a meaning about the outcome she was hoping for that even those around her, except of course Mammy, cannot guess. They were thinking that this war would be over in a month and everyone would come home with memories of grand battles. No one wanted to imagine the awful and final failures to come home. But no one had seen anything like it yet in America, because this war was between the same brothers and comrades in arms turned friends whose earlier generations had fought side by side in the war for this country’s Independence. And now this ‘awful war’ threatened to tear that those relationships and the union in two.
At that time, our nation was blessed enough to have a president in office who loved this country enough to try to prevent that from happening. He wasn’t thought to be an especially brilliant man, in fact, a failure at most things in his life – except for this one moment in time. “For such a time as this“, is as likely a phrase to describe his abilities as it was for Esther, an unknown Jewish woman who as unlikely in her day became a Queen.
Chesterton expounded on this man, this President who guided a nation through a war that generated this “Memorial Day” we observe, in a remarkable essay in which the following quote is found:
War is a failure. It is a failure to resolve the discord of death. For those who stayed the course but who nevertheless died in that awful war, Lincoln wanted to will the living then who remained by the force of those 269 words of the Gettysburg Address to resolve this failure of brothers and fathers to return to their families into success for those of us who were yet to come:
“…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
For many, the Civil War is nothing but a chapter in a history book or a famous film reenacting the great battles with indelible names like Gettysburg, Antitum, Bull Run, and Shiloh. But for me, it is still where I live. It’s in the name of my road and my town – this living discord – with names like Shiloh Road and Unionville, the legacy of north and south all in one place. Its even in my name, Melanie, my namesake from Mitchell’s great novel of the Civil War. It’s in my ancestors who fought in that war and returned to a broken family, a twin who left and a twin who remained and remarried to that soldier, Peter, who returned.
Tomorrow, this Memorial Day, I will go to the cemetery here to read the names of the men who fought in that war from this inconsequential little town, as inconsequential as Gettysburg once was before a horrible battle and a great speech made it memorable. They will be among other names on that monument. Names of my neighbors from past generations who fought in all the wars hence to this present day. Men from a little town not worth mentioning. No world class city. Just a small town. And I will remember that they, too, were most likely hoping (as we all are), that those of us who are just as inconsequential, will turn failure into success.