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Guest editorial: Memorial Day: Words to live by

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Posted on May 27, 2013 |
By Biddle Duke



Memorial Day was enacted to honor Union soldiers of the Civil War. It was set on May 30, near the day of reunification. The day was expanded after World War I to include all American casualties of any war or military action.

The federal Memorial Day holiday this year is Monday, May 27. But many communities in Vermont — Stowe and nearby towns included — will hold their services and ceremonies on May 30, with traditionalists standing firm in the belief that a day honoring our war dead is diminished if it is shifted around for the convenience of a three-day weekend. We agree.

In 1861, the United States was knifed in two in a bitter struggle over slavery and the South’s demand to leave the Union. Vermonters joined soldiers from across the land walking and riding south to fight to keep the Union together. Near Washington, D.C., they met soldiers marching north from the Southern states to fight for a separate Confederate government that would protect the right to have slaves.

America’s Civil War lasted four years. It destroyed the land and killed more Americans — some 620,000 — than any other war.

The stories of the war live on, but one song, a hymn really, forever evokes the spirit of the Union soldiers and the sadness and passion of the struggle. The words are religious; the song a praise to God. Social reformer, anti-slavery activist and poet Julia Ward Howe awoke one winter night in Washington, D.C., with the words in her head. The city was filled with soldiers, the hospitals full, the citizens in terror. The battles were just across the Potomac River.

Howe had come to Washington to visit the troops. According to published accounts, the words came to her that night in her hotel room. She was awakened by dreams of marching soldiers.

“I found to my surprise that the words were forming themselves in my head,” she later recalled. “I lay still until the last line had completed itself in my thoughts. Then I quickly got out of bed. I thought I would forget the words if I did not write them immediately. I looked for a piece of paper and a pen. Then I began to write the lines of a poem:

‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on.’”

Howe said: “I wrote until I was finished. Then I lay down again and fell asleep. I felt something important had happened to me.” The Atlantic Monthly magazine bought Howe’s poem. Paid her four dollars. She had written the poem to be sung to a soldier’s marching song about abolitionist John Brown. Howe’s version had just the right words for the music and Union soldiers began to sing it as their official marching song. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” like all great art, both captures that moment in history and transcends it for eternity.

World War I prompted the expansion of Memorial Day to honor all U.S. war dead. A single poem from that war has become one of the most memorable war poems. “In Flanders Fields” was written in 1915 by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a doctor in the Canadian Army, after battles at Ypres, the site of some of the bloodiest fighting.

The last lines read “…and now we lie in Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.”

It is an apt coincidence that Memorial Day falls in the middle of graduation season, with its commencement advice and its optimism. Life, McCrae is saying, is a gift — and a responsibility. As we acknowledge the nation’s soldiers and how their service might inform the course of our own lives, the words of U.S. naval officer and president, John Kennedy, come to mind: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

Biddle Duke

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