Monday is Memorial Day, marking the unofficial start of summer. Millions of Americans will celebrate with a road trip, or a backyard barbecue, or a day at the lake.
But despite Memorial Day’s modern association with picnics and potato salad, this is meant to be perhaps the most solemn of federal holidays.
It is the day we set aside to honor by remembering all those who gave the last full measure of devotion, who died in military service to the United States. It is a tradition that dates back to the end of the Civil War.
Today, the burden of war falls on few shoulders. Fewer than one percent of Americans are in the military, compared with about nine percent during World War II. There’s a growing gap between military families and the rest of us. Many younger Americans have not one single living family member who has served. Even fewer know someone who died in the line of duty.
And so it can be easy to forget the true meaning of Memorial Day. But we must remember. It is our job to teach our children and grandchildren about the sacrifices made by those who came before us, and by those who still put on a uniform each morning and risk so much, often very far from home.
It was the Memorial Day tradition of this newspaper for many years to reprint the following letter, written by Maj. Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers to his wife soon after the outbreak of the Civil War. Ballou describes the soldier’s experience more eloquently than any columnist ever could. His letter is a fitting reminder of the sacrifices we honor this weekend, and so I’m sharing it here, again.
July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington
My very dear Sarah,
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days — perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans on the triumph of the government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me -- perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness.
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and the darkest nights ... always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again ...
Ballou was killed at the battle of Bull Run, seven days later.
Kelli Scott’s email address is email@example.com.