Memorial Day Speech – May 29, 2017

Memory and Meaning

Dr. Michael Stevens

Good morning. This is the 151st Memorial Day Observance here in the Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery, and on behalf of all those who have worked so hard to bring it all together this year, I thank you for coming.

Memorial Day is the day we set aside to remember and to honor our fallen war heroes, to remember and to honor those who died defending their country. Here, in this special place, we meet to remember and to honor those who fought and fell for the Confederacy, for cause, and comrade, and country.

Words cannot do justice to their sacrifice and suffering, nor can our attendance begin to repay the debt they are owed. But being here, and listening with both head and heart, is important, and it is an honor and a privilege to be participating in such a meaningful event.

There are six Confederate generals buried here, along with 3,300 Southern soldiers, over 2,100 of them known only to God.

Think of it: 3,300 Southern men, 2,100 of whom will remain unknown forever, resting eternal within the sound of my voice.

And the fact is that, unlike the generals, these men were not professional soldiers. Rather, they were ordinary men and boys, with lives and loves, with Moms and Dads and wives and children, with hopes and dreams, with futures filled with bright promise and exciting possibilities. But these ordinary men and boys, when faced with Ultimate Truth as they saw it, did what needed to be done, and each paid the ultimate price for having done so. They chose to believe and answered the call of duty.

In this cemetery, in this special place, if we stop and listen closely we can hear the echoes of those who are buried here. We who understand hear their voices across time, voices of men dead for over a century who nonetheless look to us the living to protect their memories and their stories, to protect that for which they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. And the question is simply put: What would these men have wanted of us?

To those of us who do understand, the answer is obvious. The men resting here would have wanted and would have expected their sacrifice and their suffering to be honored and defended, acknowledged and respected. “Never forget, nor dishonor,” would have been their counsel and their prayer.

Walking the holy ground of this cemetery allows us to reflect upon these men who believed that there are things more important than life itself, who risked everything for the promise of nothing save honor and principle. Walking this ground allows us a unique opportunity to ponder not only what they did but also why and how they did it. And by so doing we can learn more about ourselves, about the human condition, about the difference between living one’s values and not simply professing them, about the higher virtues of honor, and duty, and love of God and country, of courage and self-sacrifice and loyalty to cause and comrade, about the difference between giving one’s life and not simply losing it, about the loftier side of the human soul, about the meaning of life itself: The terms by which it is lived and the terms upon which, at last, it must be surrendered.

By being here today, we assure that these men will not be forgotten and lost to time but will be remembered and honored forever, for who they were, for what they did, and for what they can teach us.

By being here today, we help preserve the memories and the meaning, the sacrifices and the stories, of these men, men whose bond to cause and comrade and country was so strong that they were willing to die rather than to deny it.

We are here today to remember loss. We are here today to remember courage and commitment and sacrifice. And we are here today to remember that here lie thousands of brave Southern men who risked and lost their lives for cause and country.

And yet, on this Memorial Day, I worry that their memory means too little to too many of us. I worry that the significance of this day is no longer the memory but the holiday. Talk to Americans about Memorial Day and you are likely to hear about a long weekend away from work, deals at car lots, shopping bargains at the mall. Ask them what the holiday is really supposed to mean, and many may well tell you that it signifies the beginning of summer, or a day at the beach.

We must not forget our past or these men who are buried here. This can happen if we stop telling their stories. This can happen if we become indifferent to our shared history and heritage, or if we let our memorials disappear or be destroyed.

Individual acts of neglect have diminished the importance of this day. Individual acts of determination can restore it:

–Visiting this special place regularly and bringing your children and grandchildren, telling them the stories of the brave men buried here.

–Supporting the Fredericksburg Ladies Memorial Association as it continues to maintain and be a good steward of this holy place.

–Joining our local battlefield preservation organization, CVBT, in its ongoing efforts to preserve the hallowed ground of our remaining Civil War battlefields.

–Becoming involved with our two local Civil War Round Tables, the Rappahannock Valley CWRT and the Civil War Round Table of Fredericksburg.  The Rappahannock Valley CWRT has contributed literally thousands of dollars to the preservation effort over the years, and it was the Civil War Round Table of Fredericksburg that was responsible for dedicating a new headstone here this weekend to Private Samuel Reuben Ard, 15th SC, killed at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Act as if what you can do makes a difference. Because it does.

To remember is to understand, and by these and other acts we can offer our thanks to these men who gave their lives for cause and country, and we can be confident that Memorial Day at the Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery will always be special, and that those brave Southern men, those brave Southern heroes who gave their lives for their country will be remembered and honored, forever and for all time.

In 1915, Mary Nowlin Moon of the DOC chapter in Lynchburg, said this: “A part of my heritage was that I came into this world with the blood of a soldier in my veins. It is mine, to cherish, to nurture and to make grace, and to pass along to those yet to come. It would greatly please my ancestor to know that I remember. It would please him to know that I appreciate what he did and delight him to know that I do not consider the Cause which he held dear to be lost or forgotten. Rather that I am extremely proud of the fact that he was a part of it and was numbered among the greatest and bravest men which any Cause ever produced.”

We are here today to honor our Confederate ancestors, and it’s a fine and noble thing we do. Each flag we see reflects someone brave who lost his life for cause and comrade and country. Each flag we see reflects a sacrifice that must be honored and respected. For these brave men, these ordinary men who did such extraordinary things, have earned that right to be remembered and to be honored until the end of time.

We are the future for whom they fought. Right now, their memory is in our hands. I hope and pray that we will make them proud.

May God bless their memory, may God bless all our veterans, and may  God continue to bless this greatest of all countries, the USA.