s Americans today honor all who died in wars fighting for the United States, it’s interesting to note that this day of immutable national unity actually is rooted in a period that marked America’s most excruciating discord.
Concurrent with Memorial Day, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War continues. One event that occurred 150 years before 2012 happened to be the first major Civil War battle on Union soil. Of greater interest, many sources call the Battle of Antietam the bloodiest single day in U.S. history. More than 22,000 casualties were counted on Sept. 17, 1862, near Sharpsburg, Md. Although the debate continues as to whether this particular battle was a tactical draw (there were fewer Confederate casualties), most scholars describe it as a Union victory and ultimately a turning point for the Union in the war.
Five years later, and about three years after the last shots were fired in the Civil War, Gen. John Logan proclaimed Decoration Day and ordered flowers placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. But the division continued. The South for the most part chose to honor fallen Confederates in separate ceremonies. That division continued until after World War I when Memorial Day was changed to honor Americans who died fighting in any war.
And even though several states still have days honoring Confederate war dead, the modern bond that unites all Americans on Memorial Day is undeniable.
In reviewing the differences between Americans of 1862 and Americans of 2012, we admire the conclusion drawn by usmemorialday.org, which contains this passage: “Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.”
You can’t get much clearer than that. Honoring those who gave their all draws no distinctions about place or date. Where or when does not matter. There are only two distinctions: who and why. The “who” are the members of the U.S. military who died in action. The “why” is their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and to preserve for us the precious freedoms bequeathed to all Americans by the nation’s Founders.
In their honor, a national moment of remembrance is observed by many Americans at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day. We acknowledge that a broad variety of activities will be seen across America throughout this holiday. Many Americans see it as the “real” start of summer. But there is nothing more important today than honoring our nation’s fallen heroes.
Here’s another message rooted in the past: “Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.” You might be surprised to learn that this proclamation was made more than 24 centuries ago. According to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs press release, Athenian leader Pericles spoke those words in honoring warriors who died in the Peloponnesian War. Today, those words carry equal meaning in our national tribute to 1.1 million Americans who have died in wars.
Throughout the history of the United States, discord and rancor have roiled the public arena. Expect no change now or anytime soon. But Memorial Day proves how Americans can unite as one country. On this one day — unlike 150 years ago — there is no North or South. No Union or Confederacy. No weakness in the wreath placed so respectfully.