During the years of 1861-1865, our nation saw a time of division and devastating destruction unlike any time before or since. The American Civil War pitted brother against brother and American against American. In four short years, more than 2% of the total national population, an estimated 620,000 men, lost their lives, while approximately 900,000 more were injured. The wounds of the War Between the States were deep, but the stories of honor, heroism, healing that resulted are extraordinary.
Many private homes and public gathering places, from plantations to farm fields, became battlefields and burial grounds. In places like Gettysburg, PA, Franklin, TN, or Charleston, SC, civilians who found themselves suddenly on the frontlines hastily buried the dead in order to attended to many wounded. Spring rains quickly washed away light topsoil strewn over shallow graves and mass burial sites reminded the living of the injustice done to those who gave their all. As the war ended and armies dispersed, many local communities took to the somber task of organizing proper burials for the fallen (no matter what side they had fought on), but a group of newly emancipated people living in Charleston, South Carolina did something even more extraordinary.
After properly burying more than 260 Union soldiers who had perished in a confederate prison, the newly liberated group organized what became the first Decoration Day. The New York Tribune and The Charleston Courier agree that a crowd of more than 10,000 people gathered, including freed slaves, white missionaries, pastors of all ethnicities, many heroic African American Union Regiments. They were joined by more than 3,000 children who gathered to decorate the graves of the 260 soldiers who fell there. Flowers were strewn, scriptures were read, and proper military honors were shown to the honored dead.
More than 150 years later, the actions of these newly emancipated believers remain as a beautiful testimony of what it looks like to live out the teaching of Galatians 5:13, which says, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” Truly, the greatest freedom and healing are found when we love and serve our fellow man.
Word spread quickly of Charleston’s Decoration Day, and within a year, more than 25 communities around the nation followed the example set by the emancipated citizens of Charleston, South Carolina. Three years later in 1868, Union General John Logan of New York’s Grand Army of the Republic issued orders for a national Decoration Day to be observed on May 30, a day when no battles had been fought during the war. General Logan said,
“The 30th 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.”
The celebrations quickly took on a spirit akin to the words Union Captain Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian from Upstate New York, spoke to Confederate General Lee during the surrender at Appomattox, that “We are ALL Americans.” Graves of the fallen in both the North and the South were decorated by the living in the area—simply because a fallen American was buried there. In this way, healing began.
Fast forward 100 years in history to 1968, when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. In those 100 years, tragically, more wars cost more lives. Decoration Day evolved into an annual memorial to honor ALL American soldiers who gave their lives in defense of their country.
- The American Revolution cost 31,000 American lives.
- The War of 1812 cost 15,000 American lives.
- The Mexican American war cost 13,283 American lives..
- The Civil War cost more than 600,000 American lives.
- World War I cost 116,516 American lives.
- World War II cost 405,399 American lives.
- The Korean War cost 36,516 American lives.
- The Vietnam War cost 58,220 American lives.
- The Gulf War & War on Terror cost 7,111 American lives.
Since our nation’s inception, more than 1.3 million citizens have made the ultimate sacrifice. They were all Americans. This Memorial Day, we remember them. We remember their families, their loved ones, and their brothers in arms who grapple with loss in many ways. We honor their sacrifice.
The Bible’s words in John 15:13 are fitting: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
The great love and extraordinary sacrifice of the 1.3 million Americans who gave their lives to preserve this nation and the many blessings of liberty it represents must not be forgotten. Like those generations before us, we must put aside the things divide us and attend to the things that unite us. The memory of the honored dead deserves far more than one day of remembrance each year. As President Lincoln said so well at Gettysburg,
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — 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.”
Indeed, the great love and extraordinary sacrifice of the 1.3 million Americans who have given their lives demands more than just remembrance from us; it demands stewardship. As the living beneficiaries of that sacrifice, we have a duty to be discerning keepers of liberties that God has provided and our countrymen have protected. Our gratitude for those who paid the high cost of our freedom should be something that unities us all as Americans in vigilant efforts to ensure that such valiant sacrifice is never in vain.
 The Gettysburg Address; https://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm