When Union General John Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued his General Order No. 11 on May 5, 1868, the guns of the Civil War had been silent for barely two years. The nation still was reeling from four years of bloody conflict, a nation torn apart and tenuously re-united and the assassination of a president.
So it must have resonated deeply when he issued this directive:
“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 church-yard in the land.”
Logan’s order gave rise to the original name — Decoration Day — (and date) of the holiday we celebrate Monday as Memorial Day. Since the early 1970s, the holiday has been on the last Monday in May, part of our penchant for creating three-day holiday weekends. But barbecues and the unofficial start of summer probably were far from the minds of those to whom Logan’s words were directed almost a century and a half ago.
“What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes?” he wrote. “Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance.”
During the four years of that “late rebellion” more than 200,000 Americans on both sides died in battle — more than 20 times the battle deaths in U.S. wars from the Revolution to secession. The toll has been even greater since. More than 430,000 Americans have died in combat since the Civil War, the largest number, by far, in World War II.
We would do well to honor those who as President Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg “gave the last full measure of devotion” in service to their country by a reluctance to add recklessly to the toll. There is little doubt — even if our president might have suggested otherwise — that slavery could not have been banished and the union saved without the Civil War. The Allied triumph over Adolph Hitler was an existential necessity for western democracies.
But other wars have had more dubious justifications. As we are tempted to rattle sabers in the pursuit of solutions to international challenges, we should think long and hard about adding more “graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.”