What we are experiencing this Memorial Day is an insubstantial mist compared to the cataclysmic hurricane that was our Civil War. But the issue at stake is shockingly unaltered by time. What may have changed is our willingness to sacrifice and suffer to maintain that which our forebears have given us.
Yes, we have faltered. But my hope is that it’s because we haven’t recognized the seriousness of the challenge. Perhaps some perspective can be obtained by recalling that our predecessors were similarly unmindful of the situation in 1861.
On July 21, 1861, Washingtonians trekked to the countryside near Manassas, Virginia, to watch Union and Confederate forces clash in the first major battle of the American Civil War. Known in the North as the First Battle of Bull Run and in the South as the Battle of First Manassas, the military engagement also earned the nickname the “picnic battle” because spectators showed up with sandwiches and opera glasses. These onlookers, who included a number of U.S. congressmen, expected a victory for the Union and a swift end to the war that had begun three months before.
President Lincoln confirmed this failure of understanding in his magisterial Second Inaugural Address.
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.
The freedom for which so many have sacrificed now hangs in the balance not due to war, but because we doubt our ability to live as a free people. The siren song of those who would rule us sounds so tempting from a distance. But make no mistake, their enchanting songs will lead to the to the shipwreck of tyranny.
On this Memorial Day let’s rededicate ourselves to upholding that for which our ancestors fought and died.
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.
November 19, 1863