Category Archives: Civil War

Remembering Memorial Day

Don Detrick at David Brainerd GraveI like to visit cemeteries, like this old one in Northampton, Massachusetts, where I visited the grave of Pioneer American missionary, David Brainerd. I know that seems odd to most people. But there is something about visiting a cemetery populated by reminders of the past that makes me more aware of the present. And I always enjoy the history provided there, causing me to reflect on the legacy I might be able to leave behind, or not, depending upon what I do today and whatever tomorrows I have left on this earth.

As a boy growing up in rural Oregon, Memorial Day meant noisy boat races in the nearby Willamette River and a ritual my parents carried out as a sacred duty. They called it “Decoration Day” as it was a day for decorating the graves of our departed family members. Rising early in the morning, we would enter our yard and garden to pick the flowering white blossoms of the snowball tree, pink peonies, orange and yellow day lilies, red rhododendrons or azaleas– anything that happened to be blooming at the moment, colorful and fragrant. Dad was particularly fond of iris, which he always called, “flags.” These cut flowers were carefully arranged in Mason jars and off to the cemetery we would go. My parents would reminisce on the way there and back about relatives I never knew except what I gleaned via those conversations.

Today, many Americans have no idea why we celebrate Memorial Day, viewing it only as a reason for a 3-day weekend.  I once asked an Israeli cardiologist who was a resident at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles what he thought about living here. He replied, “I don’t understand your Memorial Day. In Israel it is a very sacred and serious day when we remember those who have died and given their lives for our nation. In America, it is a huge shopping day and sale.”

Memorial Day has traditionally been a day of remembering the many heroes who lost their lives during the Civil War and other wars in which the United States has been involved. All told, more than 1.35 million lives have been lost in America’s wars since our nation’s beginning.  However, for many people, Memorial Day is also a time to honor all loved ones who have passed on before us.

The American Civil War was the deadliest war in American history, and the only one fought on our own soil, with more than 625,000 killed on both sides. Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans – the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) – established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared it should be May 30. It is believed the date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country. The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

The ceremonies centered on the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and other Washington officials presided. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.

In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. There, a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff.

By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day. The Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities. It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971 Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.

Gen. Logan’s order for his posts to decorate graves in 1868 “with the choicest flowers of springtime” urged: “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that attend today’s observance, about 5,000 people. Then, as now, small American flags were placed on each grave – a tradition followed at many national cemeteries today. In recent years, the custom for many families is to remember their departed loved ones by visiting cemeteries and cleaning up tombstones, or laying flowers or decorations on graves.[1]

Why do we need a special day to remember the dead?  The answer is simple – it is too easy for the living to forget about them.  Speaking of the dead, the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “For the memory of them is forgotten.”  (Ecclesiastes 9:5b NKJV)  He goes on to say, “Whatever they did in their lifetime – loving, hating, envying – is all long gone. They no longer have a part in anything here on earth.”  (Ecclesiastes 9:6 NLT)

While dedicating the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln said:

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.

Today we know that to a great extent it was the resolve of President Lincoln that brought an end to both the Civil War and slavery, thus creating a “new birth of freedom.”  The United States of America still exists today because of the principles set forth in a graveyard dedication speech, the Gettysburg Address. Thus it is fitting for us who remain in this day to remember and show honor and respect on this Memorial Day in 2015–and maybe visit a cemetery to pay our respects. Who knows, you might actually enjoy it!

[1] Some information taken from “The Origins of Memorial Day” from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs office of Public Relations at http://www.va.gov/pubaff/mday/mdayorig.htm.

Abraham Lincoln: Humble and Meek

Abraham Lincoln Statue

Abraham Lincoln Statue

Today we celebrate the 206th birthday of my favorite president, Abraham Lincoln. Born in a humble Kentucky log cabin, humility characterized the life of the tall, lanky, awkward-looking man. Yet perhaps meekness, often defined as “strength under control,” is a better word to describe his character. He leveraged his strength as a wrestler and a fighter by channeling those energies into educating himself and becoming a successful attorney. Legal battles turned to political battles and as President he had to battle the personal demons of self-doubt and clouds of depression, while being demonized by a hostile press and political enemies who loathed the backwoods country lawyer.

He led our nation during its greatest crisis to overcome our greatest national shame. Though a fighter, he led in his characteristic humble and meek style, enlisting his political adversaries into a “team of rivals” to win them over and help save the Union. Rather than taking a swing at those who opposed him or his ideas, he resolved to stand firm in his convictions, while listening to and engaging his opponents in dialogue. He once said, “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.” While standing firm, his self-effacing humor and ability to spin a yarn broke down defenses and built bridges.

One of my favorite Lincoln quotes is from the final paragraph of his Second Inaugural Address, delivered a few days before his tragic assassination: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

We can only imagine how much faster the process of healing our nation and reconstruction of The South might have taken place had Lincoln been able to serve out his second term of office. Perhaps we might have been spared some of the long and agonizing delays in the process of racial reconciliation and civil rights that continues in our nation and around the world to this very day.

But one thing is certain. Lincoln left his mark and made a difference in this world that is still recognized and appreciated today. His legacy is felt by all who work toward achieving and cherishing, “a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Echoes of Lincoln’s hundred and fifty year old words are heard whenever a voice is raised to oppose injustice, whenever the chains are released from a soul rescued from human trafficking, whenever the lever is raised on a water pump to improve the health of a community, whenever a door of opportunity opens for a child born in poverty, and wherever freedom reigns so people have the right to lift their voice in praise to their Creator.  Quite an accomplishment for such a meek and humble man!

Easter Hope: Resurrection & Reconciliation

Easter hope Resurrection & Reconciliation - PorcupineThe German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) compared the human race to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter’s night. He said, “The colder it gets outside, the more we huddle together for warmth; but the closer we get to one another, the more we hurt one another with our sharp quills. And in the lonely night of earth’s winter eventually we begin to drift apart and wander out on our own and freeze to death in our loneliness.”[1]

But winter does not last forever, and in the Spring Easter warms the cold heart with hope. Christ provided us an alternative: to forgive each other for the intentional and unintentional pokes we receive. Because Jesus died and rose again, we have hope. Forgiveness, kindness and compassion are at the heart of the Gospel. Even in the face of injustice and sinful arrogance, Christians must have hope. Even in the face of anger and hate, Christians must have hope. Even in the face of war and violence and death itself, Christians must have hope. That’s what Easter is all about: hope for resurrection and reconciliation.

The Civil War was the most un-civil period in American history. It is hard to imagine the hatred, animosity and strife, not just between the states, but also between families and friends and neighbors.  620,000 American soldiers on both sides lost their lives in battle or as a direct result of the conflict. To place that in perspective, we must realize that the entire population of the United States at the time was a little over 30 million – thus over 2.0% mortality from the bloody war! All told, there were more casualties in the Civil War than in all wars America has fought combined from then until now.

During the war, half the men of military age in the state of Iowa served in the Union army and more than 12,500 of them died and more than 8,500 of them went home with serious wounds. The devastation in the south was even worse. Ten billion dollars in property damage – 40% of its livestock destroyed. The state of Mississippi spent 20% of its budget on artificial limbs for the wounded in 1866.[2]

In 1913, the Federal government held a fiftieth anniversary reunion at Gettysburg. It lasted three days. Survivors of unspeakable atrocities bivouacked in the old battlefield together, swapping stories, and looking up old comrades. They had witnessed the worst of the human race, but now these aged soldiers and one time mortal enemies came together for a final memorial meeting.

The climax of the gathering was a re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge. Thousands of spectators gathered to watch as the Union veterans took their positions on Cemetery Ridge, and waited as their old adversaries emerged from the woods on Seminary Ridge and started forward toward them across the long, flat fields. Philip Myers, (who witnessed the event as an 18-year-old) wrote, “We could see not rifles and bayonets but canes and crutches.  We soon could distinguish the more agile ones aiding those less able to maintain their places in the ranks.”

As they neared the northern line, they broke into one final, defiant rebel yell.  At the sound, “after half a century of silence, a moan, a sigh, a gigantic gasp of unbelief” rose from the Union men on cemetery Ridge.

“It was then,” wrote Myers, “that the Yankees, unable to restrain themselves longer, burst from behind the stone wall, and flung themselves upon their former enemies. . .not in mortal combat, but reunited in brotherly love and affection.”

“It was,” says Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Union hero of Gettysburg, “a transcendental experience.  A radiant fellowship of the fallen.”[3]

“A radiant fellowship of the fallen.” With all due respect to those Civil War heroes, that also seems a fitting description for a community of believers in Jesus Christ. Though fallen in sin, we are picked up and redeemed in Christ.

If members of the Civil War could discover reconciliation and forgiveness, surely we can find hope through reconciliation for the uncivil way humans—friends, strangers and family members alike—sometimes treat each other. And on this Easter Sunday as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, let’s not forget what He said on Good Friday as He suffered unjustly at the hands of those He created:  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  (Luke 22:34 NIV)

Maybe the quills of broken promises and broken lines of communication have popped your balloon of hope. Maybe things just haven’t turned out as you expected.  Jesus rose from the dead so our hopes and dreams could be resurrected and we could be reconciled to him and to each other.

Jesus Christ is unique for two miraculous reasons: a virgin’s womb and an empty tomb. As fully God and fully human, Jesus suffered as no man ever suffered, and on the cross took upon Himself the sins of the world. His resurrection from the dead offers hope for the future and makes possible reconciliation for us all. Isn’t that a better choice than being poked by porcupines?



[2]The Civil War by Geoffrey C. Ward, Ric & Ken Burns.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1990   pp. 398-404.

[3]From Ken Burns, The Civil War Video series Vol. 9.  http://hardtogetvideos.com/civil_war.html