The Meaning of Memorial Day, From the Civil War On

By Lee Edwards  / May 26, 2017

The day that Americans honor those fallen in uniform began as “Decoration Day” shortly after the Civil War

Lee Edwards is the distinguished fellow in conservative thought at The Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics. A leading historian of American conservatism, Edwards has published 25 books, including biographies of Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and Edwin Meese III as well as histories of The Heritage Foundation and the movement as a whole.

As we pause this Memorial Day to honor those who died so that we might enjoy the blessings of liberty, here are some facts to remember about the day and some inspiring words from a great president.

Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day, set aside to decorate the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers.

On the first Decoration Day in 1868, Gen. James Garfield spoke at Arlington National Cemetery where some 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were buried. Garfield said they “summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtue of men and citizens.”

Red poppies are often worn on Memorial Day as a symbol of remembrance and to honor those who died in war.

Since the late 1950s, soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army, have placed small American flags at each of the over 260,000 gravestones in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, a practice that continues to this day.

For those who have flags at home, remember this Memorial Day custom: The American flag should be hung at half-staff until noon, and then raised to the top of the staff.

Presidents have long honored Memorial Day with speeches, and President Ronald Reagan did so in 1982 while visiting Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day.

After placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Reagan spoke briefly about sacrifice and obligation, saying:

If words cannot repay the debt we owe these men, surely with our actions we must strive to keep faith with them and with the vision that led them to battle and final sacrifice.

Our first obligation to them and ourselves is plain enough: The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper. Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost; it imposes a burden. And just as they whom we commemorate were willing to sacrifice, so too must we—in a less final, less heroic way—be willing to give of ourselves.

How, then, will we respond to the challenge of this Memorial Day 2017?

Will we accept the burden of preserving the freedom for which so many died? Will we sacrifice ourselves for those who will come after us? Will we keep faith with those who gave their all for us?

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Lee Edwards is the distinguished fellow in conservative thought at The Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics. A leading historian of American conservatism, Edwards has published 25 books, including biographies of Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and Edwin Meese III as well as histories of The Heritage Foundation and the movement as a whole.

 

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