The lessons of Memorial Day 2020

By Edward Achorn

The coronavirus crisis has had many depressing effects. One is that it has underscored that many Americans do not seem to understand their basic rights, the nature of their Constitution and how their government works.

Unless Americans reconnect with how this country is supposed to work, and why it remains a beacon of hope to oppressed people around the world, it is hard to see how our freedoms will survive.

An understanding of history is a crucial part of that, because it informs us of the nature of most human societies, and how rare and magnificent our blessings are.

History also acquaints us with the cruel cost of protecting these freedoms. This weekend we mark Memorial Day. Barbecues and sunshine are part of the celebration, even in this grim year, but the day is really about those who laid down their lives to preserve this country.

I remember the roasting Memorial Days of the late 1960s in Westborough, Massachusetts, where I marched in the school band (that’s me, the trombonist on the right). We went from graveyard to graveyard, drums thundering. We paused at soldiers’ graves in silence for the salute of guns — which made me flinch (if not jump) every time — followed by the forlorn and echoing steps up and down the ladder of “Taps.” We knew enough to tamp down our pre-teen energy and pay respect.

Crowds of people gathered, not only along the parade route, but at the cemeteries. I suppose many of those in the graveyards, perhaps mothers and fathers, poignantly remembered the dead of World War II, the Korean War and, of course, the Vietnam War, which was still raging.

For the last several years, I have been immersed in researching and writing my new book, Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. That has placed me in the depths of the bitter tragedy of that war. I imagined myself in the hospitals with the horribly wounded young men and on the corpse-covered battlefields. I tried hard to grasp the sorrow attending the deaths of 700,000-plus Americans in a nation of only 31 million people.

I felt I had a duty to share the anguish these people felt. I wanted to show the cost of preserving this country and ending slavery. That great crime was only washed away with the blood of many of America’s finest young men.

Lincoln himself was horrified at the cost. His friend Ward Hill Lamon recalled, “it was the havoc of the war, the sacrifice of patriotic lives, the flow of human blood, the mangling of precious limbs in the great Union host that shocked him most, — indeed, on some occasions, shocked him almost beyond his capacity to control either his judgment or his feeling.”

The Brooklyn poet Walt Whitman also struggled with the cost.

“The dead, the dead, the dead — our dead, or South or North, ours all . . . our young men once so handsome and so joyous, taken from us — the son from the mother, the husband from the wife, the dear friend from the dear friend.

“And everywhere among these countless graves . . . we see, and ages yet may see, on monuments and gravestones, singly or in masses, to thousands or tens of thousands, the significant word Unknown.

Whether we know their names or not, we owe it to those who died to devote some of our time on Memorial Day to remembering the sacrifices they made. We owe it to them to understand the immense cost of our freedom, and how precious it really is.

Unless we understand that, freedom cannot be ours for long.

(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)

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