Gettysburg_national_cemetery_img_4164Gettysburg National Cemetery, July 4, 2003.

Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, was instituted after the Civil War to honor fallen Union soldiers and was first celebrated on May 30, 1868. The first Memorial Day order said in part: “The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the noted 19th-century author of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “Evangeline,” and “The Song of Hiawatha,” wrote this poignant poem a little more than a decade after America had established a new holiday designed to encourage annual reflection on the sacrifices of the fallen.

 

Decoration Day

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest
………On this Field of the Grounded Arms,
…..Where foes no more molest,
……….Nor sentry’s shot alarms!

Ye have slept on the ground before,
…..And started to your feet
At the cannon’s sudden roar,
…..Or the drum’s redoubling beat.

But in this camp of Death
…..No sound your slumber breaks;
Here is no fevered breath,
…..No wound that bleeds and aches.

All is repose and peace,
…..Untrampled lies the sod;
The shouts of battle cease,
…..It is the Truce of God!

Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!
…..The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
…..Your rest from danger free.

Your silent tents of green
…..We deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been,
…..The memory shall be ours.