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 their homes and families. The flags come out alongside the potato salad and the sparklers and the speeches are still made – even in the midst of what seem like our never-ending tragedies.
Here in Indiana, Memorial Day follows our famous Indy 500 race day. We’re in a celebratory mood for the somberest of reasons. And while having our fun, at some moment someone or something interrupts our fun and calls us to remember, if only in the passing few notes of Taps, our deceased family veterans on this day. It is really a day to remember the fallen in all of this country’s wars past, these horrible failures that Abraham Lincoln hoped, in a speech given on a bloody battlefield, would turn into a success for this country to remain united for posterity.
What we call Memorial Day now was originally called ‘Decoration Day‘ and was meant to remember the fallen on both sides of the Great Civil War or as Ada from Cold Mountain called it: “This war, this awful war.” It was meant as a day of remembrance and healing from the awful lesson of families divided which divided a nation.
It was an awful war. It was a cruel war. In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara 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 whose earlier generations had fought side by side in the war for this country’s Independence. And now this ‘awful war‘ threatened to tear 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, he was seen as a failure at most things in his life – even throughout his presidency. He was constantly ridiculed and vilified in the press, much the same as former President Trump was. It wasn’t until history took a better look, that historians and readers began to appreciate what he had accomplished.
In a remarkable essay on Abraham Lincoln, G.K. Chesterton characterized this nation during that time within this single man:
War is a failure. It is a failure to resolve our differences peacefully that drives us to resolve them by force. 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, despite the paradoxical warning that even Christ gave us as the Prince of Peace who came to cause division with a sword (Matthew 10:34):
“…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.”Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln
Such is what happens when ideologies and convictions become incompatible and irreconcilable.
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. For still others, it has become a reason to start fights in the present.
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 about the Civil War and the passing of a civilization, one from which we still all suffer, whether we consciously realize it or not, as Chesterton noted, from the loss of that better part of ourselves, a part forgotten by those who refuse to see the whole truth of this country and what and who it is made of. 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.
On past Memorial Days, I have gone to visit 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 now), that those of us who are just as inconsequential, will turn the failure of a nation into success for its posterity.
3 thoughts on “MEMORIAL DAY”
Excellent commentary on the day, thanks Melanie.
Have you ever visited the Lincoln museum in Springfield? There you can see on the walls many of the horrible things that were written in the press about Abraham Lincoln, and they are as evil as any lies told about Donald Trump. Quite an eye opener.
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I’m glad you enjoyed it. Yes. Many times. Also had the wonderful experience of visiting the Lincoln trail several times.
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Thank you Melanie for your thoughtful expressions on this Memorial Day. In the past on July1, 2, and 3 I would do an hour presentation, each day, on Maine at Gettysburg. By the grace of God the audience size would grow each day and the stories told by veterans of their wars was very moving. I didn’t realize it the first year, but I realized in subsequent years that my purpose was to set the stage for them to share their personal stories. Some wives told me afterwards that they had never heard their husbands stories about their wartime experiences. Whenever I would attempt to recite the Gettysburg address some in the audience would stand and recite it. I usually didn’t finish it. The emotion in their recitation always humbled me.
God bless those men and women who loved our country and gave the ultimate sacrifice for us.
Praise be God.
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