The discussion of Memorial Day usually (and rightly) focuses on the need for all Americans to take some time to honor those who are fighting right now to defend our freedom or our own parents, grandparents, and relatives who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, or more recent conflicts. We Americans are fortunate to be living in a country where the day set aside to honor veterans and those who fell in defense of our republic is sufficiently remote from the experience of most citizens that, for most, it is a day of barbecues instead of national mourning, which is how, as I wrote a few weeks ago, it is observed in Israel.
However, I think it is also useful to take a moment to remember the origins of this holiday, especially in the year that we commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. As David has already pointed out (here and here), Memorial Day began in the aftermath of that war, a conflict whose cost in American blood would be far greater than even that of the two World Wars of the following century. Decoration Day, as it was called prior to the First World War, was not observed in the former Confederate states where different days where set aside to honor the dead of the rebel cause. That division has been largely forgotten, but as much as we should not show disrespect to the memory of fallen Confederates, it is perhaps more appropriate not to lump together those who died to continue the shame of American slavery with those who sought to end it and to preserve the union.
As Adam Goodheart’s new book 1861: The Awakening admirably illustrates, the catastrophe that disunion would have been for the United States as well as the world (which would rely on a strong and united America to save it three times from catastrophe in the following century) was averted not by a general call to duty by those on both sides but by the courage and determination of a few loyal souls who stood by their country and its Constitution at its moment of greatest peril. The country—nay, the free world that we live in today—would not be possible without the tremendous sacrifices of those who served the union 150 years ago.
To most of us, those who died for the union are an abstraction often forgotten amid the entirely proper hero worship of Abraham Lincoln and the less praiseworthy idolatry devoted to Robert E. Lee and his comrades. But it is the boys in blue, in whose memory this holiday was first dedicated and whose herculean efforts preserved this great republic of ours that we should honor above all today.