James A. Garfield spoke at the first official Memorial Day (then known as Decoration Day) at Arlington National Cemetery. The man who would become the 20th President of the United States was a master orator whose words still echo a noble beauty over 150 years later.
“If silence is ever golden,” Garfield said, “it must be beside the graves of 15,000 men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung.”
On May 30, 1868, a crowd of more than 5,000 gathered at Arlington National Cemetery for the first Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day) exercises. Before strewing flowers upon the graves of the dead, the crowd listened to an address by James Abram Garfield (1831–81), then an Ohio congressman who had served as a Union major general during the Civil War. In this first of such annual addresses at Arlington National Cemetery and across the nation, Garfield set a standard by explaining what Decoration Day is all about and why it should be commemorated. Garfield was elected the twentieth President of the United States in 1880. He served just four months in office before being shot by an assassin on July 2, 1881. He lingered for the next 80 days, dying at age 49 on September 19, 1881.
James A. Garfield during the Civil War. Garfield had no military…
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