If you miss the speeches that often come at a Memorial Day ceremony, we have a story for you: the story of the speech future president James A. Garfield gave at the first Memorial Day event at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868. It was, shall we say, not a short speech.
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It’s going to be a very different Memorial Day this year in many places, as we postpone the flowers and services at cemeteries are part of the origin of the holiday originally known as Decoration Day.
Nonetheless people across the country will be paying their respects today, even if they’re not doing so in person.
There are national cemeteries in 40 states, including Long Island National Cemetery in New York, the final resting place of nearly two dozen Medal of Honor winners and many others. There are several overseas cemeteries, as well, and you can visit all of the cemeteries virtually.
And if you miss hearing speeches at a Memorial Day gathering, well, we have a story for you.
As you may remember, this holiday began in the aftermath of the Civil War; there are multiple origin stories of people decorating the graves of fallen Union and Confederate soldiers.
Arlington National Cemetery comes out of the Civil War as well; it had been the plantation run by a Virginia general, Robert E. Lee, until the U.S. took the land and began burying its soldiers there.
It was on Memorial Day 1868 that the US held its first formal ceremony to mark the day at Arlington.
President Ulysses S. Grant, who’d had no small part in the Civil War, presided over the event.
But the key speaker of the day was a not-terribly-well-known member of Congress from Mentor, Ohio: James A. Garfield.
He would later go on to be the 20th President of the United States, and unfortunately one that didn’t get to finish his term.
But Garfield was at that time an up-and-coming member of the House of Representatives and a man who had joined the U.S. Army early on the Civil War.
He became the youngest Major General in the history of the Army and serving with distinction at several important battles, including Chickamauga.
Garfield wasn’t just there to say something flowery.
He knew what these servicemembers had faced and could speak to just what their sacrifice meant.
Rep. Garfield was also an educator who could speak multiple languages and had taught himself law so he could pass the bar exam.
In short, he had a lot to say, and proceeded to say it.
He spoke for about two hours to the crowd of 5,000 people on a day The New York Times described as “somewhat too warm for comfort.”
It was not uncommon to give a two hour speech in those days, but certainly more than a few fans must have fluttered as people listened to Garfield speak.
I will not quote Garfield’s entire speech here, but it is worth hearing the crux of what he said to the crowds that came to Arlington in 1868, speaking of those who we remember each Memorial Day.
“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke,” he said. “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.”