Since shortly thereafter, Americans soldiers, sailors and later, airmen, have been dying while serving the United States in wars ranging in time from the American Revolution to the Global War on Terror.
No greater honor is accorded a citizen of this country than that shown to those who have laid down their lives in military service of the United States during wartime. Where possible, an honor guard, a flag draped coffin, a 21 gun salute, and the playing of the mournfully poignant bugle notes of Taps accompany a serviceman to his final rest, often in one of America’s most beautiful National Cemeteries.
Perhaps no one has ever paid a more eloquent tribute to these slain United State warriors than did President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, a mere four months after the great battle there, when he said, “We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
“…altogether fitting and proper” is indeed what Lincoln had in mind as the full tribute to those who “…gave the last full measure of devotion…”.
Abraham Lincoln assumed a burden too horrifying for most ordinary people -- an almost personal responsibility for each and every man who served this nation, and, arguably, this included those who fought for the Confederate States of America. He felt each wound, and agonized over the grim butcher’s bills presented over the telegraph after each skirmish, engagement, and battle. He mourned over each death. He and his First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, spent countless hours working in the Washington, D. C. hospitals with the wounded and dying, and it haunted him. He abhorred the necessity of it all.
In his mind, both sides were fighting to resolve a hideously divisive and destructive issue once and for all: slavery. That it was complicated by other issues like Constitutionally protected rights of the states, does not void the primacy of the issue of slavery. As president, Lincoln had very little power on entering office that would allow him to affect slavery. The Constitution prohibited any interference, and Congress had passed and re-passed legislation not only upholding slavery, but demanding the assistance of [outraged] northern citizens in returning runaway slaves to their owners.
Lincoln was faced with attempted secession and armed revolt by secessionist and pro-slavery mobs throughout the south, even before he was sworn into office. On assuming office, he acted to the limits of Constitutional authority to save the Union. He was even willing to backpedal on his anti-slavery public stance. Recognizing the enormity of the situation he inherited on his Inauguration Day, Lincoln tried diplomacy, within the guidelines of the Constitution. When that failed, and the secessionist forces opened fire on Fort Sumter a month later, Lincoln had no choice but to call for troops. The Constitution gave him powers to act in case of armed rebellion, and states unconstitutionally entering “…into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation;…” and he reluctantly used them. It was not until a year later that he took the war measure of issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
All those hours at the hospitals, and the time spent at the Soldiers Home on the edge of Washington, surrounded by a regiment of Pennsylvania soldiers, gave Lincoln a sense of belonging to those men. By the time he helped dedicate the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Lincoln well understood what the men were fighting for, and that both sides were fighting to resolve the major issues – one way or another – on the battlefield, as a last resort.
In perhaps his two most eloquent speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln speaks of the fighting men as Americans, but not as Union or Confederate. When he speaks of the soldiers, he does not identify them with one side or the other: “…The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here..”, “…they who fought here…”, “…these honored dead…”, are all passages from the Gettysburg Address. In his Second Inaugural Address he closes with the final paragraph, "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.” This goes even farther in not only refusing to identify the sides of the soldiers, but also points to the cause as being one that results in a vastly greater, and better nation after the war than the one that existed before it.
An estimated 600,000 casualties, many of whom were horribly mutilated survivors of the carnage that occurred between April of 1861 and April of 1865, so that “…from these honored dead we may 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.”
This Memorial Day, 2005, please join President Abraham Lincoln, and indeed, all the Presidents of the United States of America, in honoring our fallen warriors. Visit a veteran’s cemetery and silently thank the spirits of those who lay there in eternity. And on your way home, stop in to your local Veterans’ Hospital, and spend time with the wounded, and the sick. Thank them for all they have given to all of us.