I can remember a Decoration Day (as Memorial Day was then called) parade in which the last living veteran of the American Civil War marched. He was over 100 years old at that time, but had been a drummer boy in the Union Army in 1865. In 1952 the celebration was still held on May 30th of each year and was marked by large parades and speeches and the decoration of the graves of fallen soldiers. The Civil War itself was not much more than a generation separated from the battles that defended our Declaration of Independence – the great social experiment. Since then, nearly 1.8 million soldiers have perished defending it, and nearly the same number wounded in more than a dozen wars or military conflicts.
While the concept of their sacrifice for the greater good is universal, the mourning of their loss and celebration of that sacrifice is almost always personal. A family’s sadness may last a lifetime. But for the larger community, the remembrance fades as we get struggle to get on with life. At the end of the Civil War, the personal sense of loss was ten times greater than in any war since. One million soldiers perished in a country that had only thirty-two million citizens in total. There were many graves to decorate and many more mourners to console. Decoration Day was proclaimed officially on May 30, 1868, but this declaration was more an acknowledgement of many individual sorrowful remembrances already occurring in cities and town across the U.S. The meaning and presence of the holiday at that time was very real and personal for a great number of American families.
But today the significance of those and later battles, and the memory of those who died, has faded. For most of us, these are stories in a history book. Our current US population, nearly ten times greater than those who decorated the graves of fallen heroes from of the Union and Confederate armies, is less likely to feel the personal tragedy of ten thousand soldiers lost in this century – less than 1/100th of the casualties sustained in the Civil War – the war which gave us cause to remember.
This Memorial Day, I’ll be coaching in a soccer tournament as a I have for the last decade, but I’ll set aside a few minutes also to respect the memory of those who paid for the abundance and wellbeing to which I’ve become accustomed. In the words of M. Grundler, “It is easy to take liberty for granted, when you have never had it taken from you.” I hope you’ll also take a few minutes to reflect.