Relay: The Rain Made Sense

Memorial Day was enacted to honor Union soldiers of the Civil War

Rain is fitting on Memorial Day, the solemnity of the occasion not totally forgotten amid sunny beach outings and start-of-summer barbecues.

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 is often not on the 30th itself, but almost always is celebrated on the last Monday of May for the convenience of a three-day weekend. This year, we remembered the nation’s fallen soldiers, as traditionalists intended, on May 30th, in the rain.

In 1861, the United States was knifed in two in a bitter struggle over slavery and the South’s demand to leave the Union. Eastern Long Islanders 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. Julia Ward Howe, social reformer, anti-slavery activist, and poet, 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.

 

“I wrote until I was finished,” Howe said. “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 the 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. Another 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.

Who knows how many Americans might stop to consider the profound values and meaning of Memorial Day, even as American troops fight on in the nation’s two longest wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, neither officially declared, neither officially over. How should our millions of war dead and the service of soldiers today inform the course of our nation, and our own lives? How do we show our thanks?

In the words of U.S. naval officer and former President John F. Kennedy: “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 is the editor of The Star’s forthcoming magazine, East.