A Memorial Day Remembrance by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Each year on Memorial Day, which is observed on the last Monday of May, there is a national moment of remembrance at 3:00 P.M. to honor the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., one of our most famous and influential U.S. Supreme Court Justices (1902 to 1932), delivered a Memorial Day address at Keene, New Hampshire that is considered by many to be one of the most eloquent ever spoken. Massachusetts born Holmes, Jr. delivered his famous speech before John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic, just two days before his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Holmes credited his service during the Civil War as one of the most formative influences of his life. He was seriously wounded three times in three different battles and kept the Minie balls that wounded him for the rest of his life. These experiences led him to observe in his most famous book The Common Law that “The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.” During his time as judge, Holmes earned the nickname “The Great Dissenter” for how often he opposed his fellow justices in their opinions.

Holmes’ speech begins as follows.

Not long ago I heard a young man ask why people still kept up Memorial Day, and it set me thinking of the answer. Not the answer that you and I should give to each other-not the expression of those feelings that, so long as you live, will make this day sacred to memories of love and grief and heroic youth–but an answer which should command the assent of those who do not share our memories, and in which we of the North and our brethren of the South could join in perfect accord…

And concludes with these three famous paragraphs.

But, nevertheless, the 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. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us. But, above all, we have learned that whether a man accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig, or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice, the one and only success which it is his to command is to bring to his work a mighty heart.

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.

But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death–of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.

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