‘Decoration Day’ a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Before we head out for the holiday weekend, let’s take a minute to pause and remember those who went to work @war with ‘Decoration Day’, a poem, written in 1882 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

On May 30, 1868 five thousand people gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to commemorate the first ‘Decoration Day’. An Ohio congressman, who had served as a major general in the Civil War, James A. Garfield addressed the crowd.

“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.”

The Memorial Day we celebrate in the U.S. this weekend had its origins in the years after the Civil War. It was customary to ‘decorate’ the graves of those who had died in defense of their country, and on May 5, 1868  General John Logan designated May 30 as ‘Decoration Day’ “because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle”.

David Barber introduced Longfellow’s poem for the Atlantic in 2011.

“Longfellow’s “Decoration Day” may not rank among his canonic Atlantic verse, but it imparts a burnished poignancy all its own. In the solemn, hymn-like strains that were a hallmark of the country’s foremost “Fireside Poet,” the poem pays tribute to what was then a new form of civic observance: a day set aside to commemorate those who had perished in the Civil War by placing flags and flowers on soldiers’ graves, a custom that gradually gave rise to our modern Memorial Day honoring all who give their lives in military service. Its first readers likely felt an elegaic pang all the more acutely: by the time the poem circulated in the June 1882 Atlantic, it would have been national news that Longfellow had died just a few weeks earlier at his home in Cambridge, at the age of 75.”

Decoration Day

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.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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