Remarks for Slayton, Minnesota, Memorial Day Service 2012
-John C. Shepard
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
President Abraham Lincoln spoke these words in the Autumn of 1863, on the battlefield of Gettysburg. You can go there now, like my family did last year, to the new Visitor’s Center between Cemetery Ridge and the Baltimore Pike. It is a great improvement on the old cramped quarters my father took me to when I was young. Yet even with all the latest and greatest presentation technology, for me it is still impossible to fully conceptualize the idea of 165,000 men fighting at this one place and time.
Memorial Day originated as Decoration Day, when the graves of fallen soldiers were decorated and memorialized. Over 46,000 men died over the course of three days on the battlefield of Gettysburg. I stood with my sons at the Monument to the 1st Minnesota Infantry, on Cemetery Ridge. On July 2nd, 1863, 83% of the 1st Minnesota became casualties, the largest loss by any surviving military unit in American history, during the single bloodiest battle in American history. We gazed out across the Emmitsburg Road and imagined the sight the next day, July 3rd, of Pickett’s Charge across the mile-wide valley. I wondered if I would have had the nerve of the decimated Minnesota volunteers who stood their ground when duty called.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
The following year, on the 3rd of October 1864, my fore-father Orrin Brown enlisted as a Private in Company E, 14th Michigan Infantry. At the age of 27, he left his family and farm to march with Sherman through Georgia. While he survived, his health and his family paid a price he spent the rest of his life repaying. While our nation survived, we continue to pay the price of liberty.
I claim no part of the honor of the Veteran. That is yours alone. My father’s Uncle Carl answered the call of duty in the 1930s, leaving his Michigan dairy farm for the U.S. Navy. When war came with Germany and Japan, he re-enlisted and spent the war in the Pacific. He settled in California, so growing up I didn’t see him very often, but I’ve always known him as a man for whom the impossible is probable. Uncle Carl is a man who built a concrete sailboat—if you can float concrete, you can do just about anything. His determination inspires me; when I feel things are difficult, I know it will never be as difficult as what he—a Veteran—has faced and overcome.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
I do stand here in the uniform of the Boy Scouts of America. Scouting was founded by a veteran, Robert Baden-Powell. As a British military officer in India and Africa, Baden-Powell observed his troops and developed ideas he eventually recorded in a training manual, which became popular among English school-boys. Refined for youth, Scouting for Boys was published in 1908, not as a guide for war but as a call for honor.
I struggle to talk about honor with my Scouts. At best, honor is what you do when nobody is looking. Baden-Powell noted that men who are prepared to think and do for themselves are better able to help their unit achieve its goals. Each Scout strives to live up to the Scout Oath—On My Honor, I will Do My Best, To Do My Duty—dedicated to individual excellence in the unfinished work of God and Country. We find the best in ourselves when we give our best for a cause greater than ourselves, as the Veteran has done.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
No nation goes to war lightly, no less a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people.” In the last decade, many young men and women have joined the ranks of the Veterans among us and those whose graves we now decorate on Memorial Day. These are your brothers and sisters, daughters and sons. They include fathers of my Scouts; and my cousin Victor, who volunteered for the Army last year.
At times it feels beyond our resolve that these men shall not have fought in vain. Yet I refuse to lose faith. I remember the men who fought and died at Gettysburg. I look out today on the Greatest Generation who stood up for freedom in Germany and Japan. I take pride in those who stood up against Communism in Korea and Vietnam; and those who stand up for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I find myself rededicated to their unfinished work at home.
The new birth of freedom Lincoln spoke of so long ago, happens every day. It happens each morning when we wake up and decide to do what is right rather than what is simply easy. It happened this morning when you decided to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers and memorialize the Veterans contributing to our community every day. It will happen tomorrow when our children go to school and we go about our work. It will happen every day we participate in this grand experiment of liberty and democracy called the United States of America.