In 1868, Congressman James A. Garfield, who would later become the 20th president of the United States, gave a speech on “Decoration Day” at Arlington National Cemetery, the day we now refer to as Memorial Day.
Congressman Garfield served as a Major General in the Union Army before being elected to Congress. He had a front-row seat to the tremendous sacrifices of those who gave their lives for freedom and the Union. “Approximately 620,000 soldiers died from combat, accident, starvation, and disease during the Civil War. … A recent study puts the number of dead as high as 850,000.”
On that first official “Decoration Day” people lined the 15,000 tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery with flowers as an act of remembrance, respect and gratitude. Congressman Garfield addressed a crowd of about 5,000 people gathered there.
“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of 15,000 men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung. With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.
“For the noblest man that lives, there still remains a conflict. He must still withstand the assaults of time and fortune, must still be assailed with temptations, before which lofty natures have fallen; but with these the conflict ended, the victory was won, when death stamped on them the great seal of heroic character, and closed a record which years can never blot.”
Garfield concluded by saying,
“What other spot so fitting for their last resting place as this under the shadow of the Capitol saved by their valor? Here, where the grim edge of battle joined; here, where all the hope and fear and agony of their country centered; here let them rest, asleep on the Nation’s heart, entombed in the Nation’s love!”
It is our responsibility to ensure the sacrifices of millions who gave their lives for our country are not forgotten.
We cannot reflect on this holiday without also remembering the ultimate example of the perfect sacrifice made by Jesus Christ on the cross. John 15:13 says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Those who have died in service to our Nation remind us of that truth.
We encourage you to take time on Memorial Day to thank God for the tremendous freedom we enjoy in America.
May the examples of those who have given their lives in sacrifice inspire in us the selfless love of our Lord Jesus Christ. And pray for the families of our fallen troops that their homes and their lives will be filled with God’s strength and peace.