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One of the popular songs of the Civil War, more honest than some war songs, caught the frustration of lives lost in the immensity of war's folly:
Any speaker on Memorial Day faces a dilemma. How do we honor the bravery, the courage, the sacrifice of those who have served their country without exalting war itself? For make no mistake, war represents civilization's failures - the failure of reason and commonsense, of diplomacy and goodwill. War drags all its participants down to the level of brutality and suffering. The ancient Greek dramatist was right more than 2,000 years ago when he depicted war not by parading a dashing soldier in flashing armor but by bringing on stage an old woman carrying a dead child in her arms. Even on such a day of patriotic pride as this we forget that at our peril.
And yet here is the amazing thing that we commemorate and celebrate today - that the human spirit rises above the stench and stupidity of war, that integrity and wisdom and moral virtue cannot be crushed. Let someone who learned that firsthand speak to us today.
The Twentieth Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry was one of the most honored regiment of the Army of the Potomac in the Civil War. It was in the thick of the worst fighting from Ball's Bluff in 1861 through the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam and the savage street fighting of Fredericksburg, to Gettysburg, on through the Wilderness Campaign to Lee's surrender at Appomattox in 1865. Seventeen of its officers were killed or mortally wounded. Two hundred forty three of its enlisted men were killed; another 146 died of disease and accidents.
The Twentieth was called the "Harvard Regiment" because so many of its men and officers were Harvard College graduates. They included Paul Revere's grandson and namesake and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Holmes was wounded three times but lived to see the end of the War and to make a distinguished career as a jurist and legal scholar, serving as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Twenty years after the War's end, Holmes reflected about its personal meaning:
To the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go somewhither as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate. One may fall - at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the earthworks; but in no other way can he reach the rewards of victory…I think that, as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived. If this be so, the use of this day is obvious... Feeling begets feeling, and great feeling begets great feeling. We can hardly share the emotions that make this day to us the most sacred day of the year, and embody them in ceremonial pomp, without in some degree imparting them to those who come after us…. The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us. But, above all, we have learned that whether a man accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig, or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice, the one and only success which it is his to command is to bring to this work a mighty heart….