“In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire” – Oliver Wendell Holmes on Memorial Day

May 27, 2013 | American Other

Holmes

In 1884 Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, Civil War veteran and future Supreme Court Justice, gave a famous speech upon Memorial Day, which was established to remember the Union dead. This Memorial Day you would do well to read the entire speech here. Here are several of the more famous sections:

So to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go somewhere as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate. One may fall-at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the earthworks; but in no other way can he reach the rewards of victory. …

[A]s surely as this day comes round we are in the presence of the dead. For one hour, twice a year at least–at the regimental dinner, where the ghosts sit at table more numerous than the living, and on this day when we decorate their graves–the dead come back and live with us.

I see them now, more than I can number, as once I saw them on this earth. They are the same bright figures, or their counterparts, that come also before your eyes; and when I speak of those who were my brothers, the same words describe yours. …

[T]he generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. …

Such hearts–ah me, how many!–were stilled twenty years ago; and to us who remain behind is left this day of memories. Every year–in the full tide of spring, at the height of the symphony of flowers and love and life–there comes a pause, and through the silence we hear the lonely pipe of death. Year after year lovers wandering under the apple trees and through the clover and deep grass are surprised with sudden tears as they see black veiled figures stealing through the morning to a soldier’s grave. Year after year the comrades of the dead follow, with public honor, procession and commemorative flags and funeral march–honor and grief from us who stand almost alone, and have seen the best and noblest of our generation pass away.

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