By Melissa Johnson Williams
During the early days of the Civil War, it became apparent that there was a need to identify and develop space for cemeteries to honor those who fought for their country and gave the ultimate sacrifice. On July 17, 1862 Congress authorized the President to purchase cemetery grounds “for soldiers who shall have died in the service of their country.” Fourteen cemeteries were established in that first year.
In what is considered to be one of President Abraham Lincoln’s monumental acts, the Gettysburg Address was only two minutes long but is still remembered and quoted today. President Lincoln gave this speech at the Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg (now called Gettysburg National Cemetery) on November 19, 1863. His dedication to those buried there set the tone for Memorial Day remembrances of the future.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. 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.”
Memorial Day was officially established by an order of John Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic on May 5, 1868. “The 30th day 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. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
Today, the best known of these is Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington is the eternal home of more than 400,000 deceased soldiers and American dignitaries is visited by nearly four million people each year. The Old Guard perform a 24/7/365 vigil over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s a moving experience to observe the hourly changing of the guard.
Today, there are a total of 147 cemeteries within the National Cemetery System (including those outside the continental United States) with 4.1 million burials or inurnment of cremated remains.
On this Memorial Day let us say thank you to those who have served our country and pray for those who are no longer with us.