While we’re all gearing up for a great holiday weekend, we should pause to recall the real purpose behind Memorial Day. As you hopefully know, the holiday exists to commemorate the sacrifices of the more than 1.1 million American service members who have given their lives in battle–and to remember the causes for which they died.
No one has ever done that better than Abraham Lincoln, whose Gettysburg Address reminds us what this Monday should be about (even though it was written before Memorial Day was invented).
Getting to Gettysburg
Fought July 1-3, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was one of the bloodiest in American history. It was also one of the most decisive battles of the Civil War, though its location was something of an accident.
In late spring 1863, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, faced a dilemma. Having repelled the Federal Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville (protecting the Confederate capital at Richmond), Lee realized that he could either prepare for yet another Union assault on the South or take the fight to the North. He opted to attack—at least partly, it seems, because his army was short on supplies, including food, clothing, and shoes.
Two Armies Converge
Advancing northward, Lee’s army met little resistance until it reached the small farming town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In late June, a Confederate brigade passed through Gettysburg, and its commander noted that the town contained a shoe factory. Since the troops needed shoes, a brigade was dispatched on June 30 to find footwear. Instead, they found a large Federal force advancing toward the town.
The next day, a massive battle began. After three days of attack and counterattack—culminating in “Pickett’s Charge,” an infamous assault in which more than 12,000 Confederate troops attacked the Federal lines and were gruesomely repelled—the Union army prevailed. Lee retreated to Virginia and never mounted another serious offensive.
Lincoln’s Few But Forceful Words
Four months after the battle, President Lincoln visited Gettysburg to help dedicate a cemetery there. He was not the event’s main speaker. That honor belonged to Edward Everett, perhaps the best-known orator of the time. As was customary, Everett delivered a lengthy oration, speaking for two hours straight. Lincoln spoke for just two minutes. He said:
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 battlefield 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 cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot 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.
The day after the ceremony, Edward Everett wrote to Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
The central idea of Lincoln’s speech is also what we should remember each Memorial Day. We best honor the sacrifices of our soldiers by carrying forward the work of democracy. We best memorialize their dedication by rededicating ourselves: to the rebirth of freedom, to the ongoing work of building our nation, to the right–and the responsibility–to govern ourselves.
We shouldn’t just pause to remember. We should take up the great task of proving anew that a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal can survive and thrive and even lead the world.
Enjoy your weekend. And remember.
I love you,