Thursday, June 2, 2011

Redd Griffin's Brilliant, Historically Connected Remarks for Memorial Day, 2011

Photo by Debby Preiser
(Sorry that I don't have a photo of Redd but since this was the same event, it was as close as I could come visually!)

Memorial Day, 2011, in Scoville Park, Oak Park, Illinois
Remarks by Redd Griffin

Today events of the distant past and recent present near where we meet link us with Memorial Day. The only three men mentioned in our State song, John Logan, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant, helped make these connections possible across time and space.

What became the national observance of Memorial Day began with John Logan, a Civil War general and commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (Union veterans of the war) from downstate Murphysboro. Logan in May, 1868, proclaimed the Day’s forerunner, “Decoration Day” be observed nationwide to honor those fallen in the Civil War. This day survivors would decorate their graves. Last month the Illinois State Historical Society began its commemoration of that war’s 150th anniversary with a conference at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale with a side trip to Logan’s home nearby.

Events triggering the beginning and end of that war happened along a route at the bottom of this hill, where Oak Park began on the U.S. frontier in the 1830’s. What we call Lake Street extended from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. Less than ten miles east of us on Lake Street in Chicago, the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for President 151 years ago this month. That event led to the South’s secession and the outbreak of the Civil War. Last year, several Oak Parkers were among the hundreds who celebrated the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s nomination in the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center.

One hundred fifty miles northwest of us on Lake Street’s extension as route U.S. 20, Ulysses Grant joined the army exactly 150 years ago today. His leadership along with Lincoln’s and Logan’s led to the Union winning the war, preserving the nation and freeing the slaves. Today civil and religious leaders are gathered in Galena to commemorate Grant’s leaving civilian life for the army.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, Oak Parkers who had served under Grant, stayed together. In 1887 they organized the Philip Sheridan Post of the Grand Army of the Republic (the GAR). Among them was Anson Hemingway, one of Ernest Hemingway’s two grandfathers who served in the War. He was photographed in his dark blue uniform with young Ernest, and with his fellow veterans in front of Oak Park’s first library, a few yards southwest of us.

Besides the grand sweep of historic forces and patterns are the more immediate, intimate, moments of those who served democracy in the Civil War and the centuries of our history.

Their terrors and triumphs were captured in their diaries or the writing of authors like Ernest Hemingway, who had heard such stories from Civil War veterans as a boy growing up in Oak Park. He would write of his own intense war-time experiences in non-fiction and fiction, including his widely-read novel about World War I, A Farewell to Arms.

With trend-setting candor, Hemingway made clear his view based on his own wartime experiences that “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene besides the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”

Hemingway saw such abstract words as empty, especially when cynical leaders used them to manipulate the masses. But he found the values these words stood for to be very real when people lived by them.

Those living by these values include our fellow Americans in the service and their loved ones, who have unselfishly supported them and their cause. Their heroic sacrifices led to growth in character and higher levels of being.

These protectors of our democracy need solidarity with each other, with their community and their nation. But why do they give up part--and sometimes all--of their freedoms and lives to defend ours? How should we civilians utilize the freedoms and lives they allow us to enjoy? Positive answers might be found in lessons from history, which clarify where we came from, where we are and where we should be going.

John Logan, for example, turned from opposing Lincoln to supporting him, even to the extent of risking his life for his cause in war. On his first Decoration Day, flowers were placed on Confederate as well as Union graves in Arlington National Cemetery. Such tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation are as essential to healthy individual lives as to the just life of a nation.

Among possible responses, the arts and religion often provide direction, motivation, meaning and hope. Of the thousands of songs and hymns written to do this during the Civil War, few better linked individuals, their country and a greater cause than “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with Julia Ward Howe’s inspired words. The History Singers, John and Kathryn Atwood sing it here today. They invite you to join them and sense the spirit that it brought to Americans during the Civil War as it has brought to them ever since.

[Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath or stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on.

Chorus: Glory, Glory Hallelujah, His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence in the dim and flaring lamps,
His Day is marching on.

Chorus: Glory, Glory Hallelujah, His truth is marching on.]

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