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Judge Michael R. Sheldon
at Collinsville, Connecticut
on May 25, 2009

Reflections On The History And True Purpose Of Memorial Day

U.S. Flag at New Haven Superior CourtEver since we have lived in this beautiful community, my family and I have joined with other families in making the yearly pilgrimage to this cemetery on Memorial Day. At the end of a colorful parade through our small New England town, we have come together to offer prayers of remembrance for and to acknowledge our enduring debt of gratitude to those who lay down their lives in faraway places so that we might continue to enjoy the blessings of peace and freedom they fought so heroically to preserve. We should all be deeply humbled by the extraordinary measure of their sacrifice, which words alone can only dimly reflect.

In considering what I might say to you on this occasion, I was reminded at once of President Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, which we have just heard once again. What people should remember, Lincoln told us, is not what he or others said on that bloody battlefield, where over 50,000 had died in three days of awful battle, but what the fallen and their comrades had done on that battlefield and why they had done it. As a tribute to those men, Lincoln bid the people of the Union to dedicate themselves to completing the unfinished work for which they had fought and died, which was to ensure both that our young Nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, would survive, and that its special promise of freedom for all men – protected by a government of the people, by the people and for the people – would be fully honored.

In this year, the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, his call to duty at Gettysburg still rings true for all Americans, for our Nation is still a work in progress, with both its physical security and its core values under constant threat from within and without. Our challenge as citizens, laid down by the men and women we honor today, is to continue the work of determining our Nation’s destiny which they made it possible for us to carry on. We do so by raising our voices to speak out on matters that concern us, as we in America. are uniquely privileged to do. We do so by participating actively in the social, spiritual and political lives of our community, taking charge of our own lives in a manner that other peoples have never enjoyed. We do so by remaining vigilant both to preserving our safety and security as a Nation and to promoting the core values of liberty, equality and justice for all that make that Nation so worth preserving. Finally, we do so by enjoying the simple but profound blessings of peace at home which make days like this one possible. We honor the fallen by taking full advantage of our freedoms they fought so hard to preserve.

When I grew up, my parents referred to Memorial Day as Decoration Day, and that in fact is the original name for the day of tribute we observe today. As I recall, the day was always celebrated on May 30, whether or not it came on or near a weekend, and it was always observed by laying flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers in the local cemetery. By the mid-1960s, however, it had been transformed into a 3-day holiday, always celebrated on the last full weekend and Monday of May, which, commercially at least, seemed more to signal the start of summer than a tribute to fallen soldiers. Sensing that this change might be inconsistent with the original purpose of the holiday, I decided to examine the origins of Decoration Day, which I will share with you briefly now as a preface to the happy conclusion that what we are now doing – the parade, the family gatherings, this ceremony and the celebration of freedom in America it represents – is completely consistent with the original spirit of that day.

In 1868, General of the Army John Logan issued a General Order decreeing that May 30 of that year would be set aside for the purpose “of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of the comrades who died in defense of their country in the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials in respect as circumstances may permit.” The dead, he observed, “had made their breast a barricade between our country and its foe. Their soldier lives were a reveille to a race in chains, and their death a tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms.” Logan bade veterans, on that day, to “guard their comrades’ graves with sacred vigilance, and to let pleasant paths, strewn with flowers, to invite the coming and going of visitors and mourners.” The soldiers’ graves were to be “decorated with the choicest flowers of springtime” – hence the selection of May 30 – and to be marked by American flags.

Logan’s order was followed widely, with observance gradually spreading all across the country and even into the South, where its Union origins had led initially to resistance, when the day was broadened in purpose to honor the dead of all American wars, not just the Civil War. Such was the origin of official Memorial Day.

Unofficial Memorial Day – the very first on record anywhere – is of special significance here in Collinsville, Connecticut for two reasons. First, as some of you surely know, this is the town where the abolitionist, John Brown, purchased the bayonets used to launch his famous raid on Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia in 1859. That raid made Brown a great hero to the freed slaves in the South, for it was the first armed action by white Americans to bring an end to slavery. Second, if you will look at our local monument to troops who died in the South whose bodies were never returned home, you will read a long list of towns where local boys died in the Civil War. They include famous battles at Antietam, Petersburg and the Wilderness, less famous battles in Virginia, North Carolina and Louisiana, and the notorious Confederate prison camps at Andersonville, Georgia and Florence, South Carolina. One death is listed at Charleston, South Carolina, and that’s where the first unofficial Memorial Day observance took place.

There, in the heart of the genteel South, the home of Fort Sumpter where the Civil War had begun, was another infamous Confederate prison camp for Union soldiers who were starved, mistreated and kept in generally intolerable conditions. In all, 237 men died at the camp and were buried in a mass grave. Not 10 days after Appomattox, when the South finally surrendered, a large contingent of freed slaves descended upon that prison camp and worked together for 10 days digging up every Union soldier’s body and reburying it in an individual grave. On the 10th day of their work, on May 1, 1865, they brought from the surrounding countryside a large quantity of fresh flowers and used them to decorate the soldiers’ new graves before joining with black and white soldiers garrisoned at Charleston to parade through its streets strewing flowers and singing hymns. History records that the first hymn sung on that day of remembrance and gratitude was “John Brown’s Body.”

The slaves who solemnly but joyously honored the Union soldiers who had died for their freedom, by giving them proper graves, strewing flowers on their graves and parading with troops to reverent song through Charleston, gave us the model for what we do on this day in Collinsville to honor our fallen heroes. As we rejoice in our own hard-won freedom in the company of our friends and loved ones, we honor the dead by recalling their sacred memory and enjoying to the fullest measure the gifts they gave us at the cost of their lives.

The challenge for us, who have received these gifts of freedom, is to dedicate ourselves as citizens to doing everything we possibly can to preserve those freedoms for all Americans – regardless of race, age, religion, national origin, sex or lifestyle – for the benefit of future generations. Vote! Speak out! Participate! Serve your community! And remember that when one person is in chains, or made a second-class citizen, no one among us is truly free. If we devote ourselves to this task, we can make every day a Memorial Day.


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