Why Memorial Day

On Memorial Day 1884, not even 20 years after the tradition of decorating the graves of Soldiers had begun, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., remarked to a crowd that he had heard a young man ask “why people still kept up Memorial Day.”

Holmes, a three-times wounded Civil War veteran who went on to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, recalled this remark in a speech he gave to the John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic in Keene, N.H.

It is most likely that the young man Holmes spoke of had not served in the Civil War, and therefore did not and could not have a full appreciation for the devastation of war, unlike Holmes and his contemporaries who lost so many comrades and thought of Memorial Day as “sacred to memories of love and grief and heroic youth.”

Understanding that his generation who had fought in the war had been “set apart by its experience,” Holmes said he felt his answer, nevertheless, should “command the assent of those who do not share their memories.”

“So to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go somewhither as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate. One may fall — at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the earthworks; but in no other way can he reach the rewards of victory.”

On this Memorial Day, On Your Guard honors and salutes all those who acted greatly before us in defense of our freedoms.

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