Before the Civil War, James Garfield had no military experience. In fact, the man who would become our 20th president was serving in Congress as a representative from Ohio when war broke out. But when Congress adjourned he returned home to drive enlistments and was commissioned as a colonel in August 1861. He served with distinction, played a key role in several battles, and was promoted to major general in 1863. That combination of public and military service made him the ideal person to deliver the first “Decoration Day” address at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868. Decoration Day later became known as Memorial Day, and also became a day for us to honor those who died in all of our wars.
Garfield’s words resonate today, especially as America endures a period of intense polarization. Just months after our own David French published Divided We Fall, warning that secession threats should be taken seriously, we watched as hundreds of Americans stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stop a peaceful transfer of power. Garfield noted in his speech how quickly American became wartorn, and he praised the sacrifices of those who died to preserve our nation.
I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung. With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue. For the noblest man that lives, there still remains a conflict. He must still withstand the assaults of time and fortune, must still be assailed with temptations, before which lofty natures have fallen; but with these the conflict ended, the victory was won, when death stamped on them the great seal of heroic character, and closed a record which years can never blot.
I know of nothing more appropriate on this occasion than to inquire what brought these men here; what high motive led them to condense life into an hour, and to crown that hour by joyfully welcoming death? Let us consider.