9 Memorial Day Tributes Taken From Poems and Speeches

9 Primary Source Texts for Memorial Day in ELA or Social Studies Classes

While many think of the Memorial Day weekend in May as the unofficial kick-off to summer, the holiday's origins are found in a more somber tradition by honoring those men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. 

Background to Memorial Day

The tradition of honoring troops who died in conflict while defending the country began after the Civil War (1868) during which approximately 620,000 Americans died. The Union Army lost almost 365,000 troops and the Confederacy about 260,000 troops, although over half of the combined deaths were caused by disease.

To honor the fallen soldiers on both sides, a day of recognition, Decoration Day, was established. The name was a reference to those who would decorate the graves of soldiers. Today, people may visit cemeteries and memorials in order to honor those who have died in military service. Volunteers (Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, local clubs, etc.) place American flags on graves in national cemeteries.

The name Decoration Day was changed to Memorial Day which became an official federal holiday in 1971. 

Primary Source Texts for ELA, Social Studies, or Humanities Classes

The following nine (9) excerpts are taken from longer texts associated with Memorial Day, and they span from the late 18th Century to the early 20th Century. Here are a variety of complex texts: speeches, poems, and music lyrics. Each was written by an American author, poet or politician; a photo and brief biography is provided with each selection.

Use of these texts in part or in their entirety will meet many of the Common Core Anchor Standards including:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.
Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10
Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

The Common Core State Standards encourage the use of primary source documents in all disciplines, stating,

"The skills and knowledge captured in the ELA/literacy standards are designed to prepare students for life outside the classroom. They include critical-thinking skills and the ability to closely and attentively read texts in a way that will help them understand and enjoy complex works of literature."

In order to address the various levels of student performance within a class, the average grade level readability for each text is also provided. 

Robert Green "Bob" Ingersoll. Library of Congress

GENRE: Speech

 An Address Delivered at the Soldier's Reunion at Indianapolis, 9/21/1876

"These heroes are dead.  They died for liberty - they died for us.  They are at rest.  They sleep in the land they made free, under the flag they rendered stainless, under the solemn pines, the sad hemlocks, the tearful willows, and the embracing vines.  They sleep beneath the shadows of the clouds, careless alike of sunshine or of storm, each in the windowless Place of Rest.  Earth may run red with other wars - they are at peace.  In the midst of battle, in the roar of conflict, they found the serenity of death.  I have one sentiment for soldiers living and dead: cheers for the living; tears for the dead."

 ~Robert G. Ingersoll
 

Biography: (1833-1899)  Ingersoll was an American lawyer, a Civil War veteran, political leader, and orator of the United States during the Golden Age of Free Thought; defended agnosticism.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 5.1
Automated Readability Index 5.7
Average Grade Level 7.2 More »

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Library of Congress

GENRE: Poem

"Decoration Day: In the Harbor"

Opening Stanza:

Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest
  On this Field of the Grounded Arms,
Where foes no more molest,
  Nor sentry's shot alarms! 

Closing Stanza:

Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.

~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Biography: (1807 – 1882) Longfellow was an American poet and educator. Longfellow wrote many lyric poems known for their musicality and often presenting stories of mythology and legend. He became the most popular American poet of his day.  

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 10.4
Automated Readability Index10.9
Average Grade Level 10.8 More »

Ralph Waldo Emerson. Library of Congress

GENRE: Poem

"Concord Hymn" Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, July 4, 1837

Opening Stanza:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood, 
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, 
Here once the embattled farmers stood 
And fired the shot heard round the world. 

Closing Stanza:

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Biography: Emerson was a mid-19th century American essayist, lecturer, and poet who led the Transcendentalist movement; strong believer in individualism and critic of society; travelled across the US to deliver over 1,500 public lectures. 

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 1.4
Automated Readability Index 2.6
Average Grade Level 4.8 More »

Benjamin Harrison, 23rd President of the United States.

GENRE: Speech

"Remarks During Decoration Day Ceremonies in Independence Hall"

 "I have never been able to think of the day as one of mourning; I have never quite been able to feel that half-masted flags were appropriate on Decoration Day.  I have rather felt that the flag should be at the peak, because those whose dying we commemorate rejoiced in seeing it where their valor placed it.  We honor them in a joyous, thankful, triumphant commemoration of what they did."

 ~Benjamin Harrison

Biography: (1833 – 1901) Harrison was the 23rd President of the United States; Hallmarks of his administration included unprecedented economic legislation; he facilitated the creation of the National Forests; strengthened and modernized the Navy, and was active in foreign policy. 

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 10.4
Automated Readability Index 10.9
Average Grade Level 10.8 More »

William Cullen Bryant. Library of Congress

GENRE: Poem

"The Battle-Field"

Opening Stanza:

ONCE this soft turf, this rivulet's sands,   
Were trampled by a hurrying crowd, 
And fiery hearts and armèd hands   
Encountered in the battle-cloud

Closing Stanza:

Ah! never shall the land forget
How gushed the life-blood of her brave -
 

~William Cullen Bryant 

Biography:  (1794 – 1878) Bryant was an American romantic poet, journalist, and long-time editor of the New York Evening Post.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level1.1
Automated Readability Index1.6
Average Grade Level 4.3 More »

George Henry Boker. Library of Congress

GENRE: Poem

 "Dirge for a Soldier"

Opening Stanza:

CLOSE his eyes; his work is done!
  What to him is friend or foeman,
Rise of moon, or set of sun,
  Hand of man, or kiss of woman?
    Lay him low, lay him low, 
In the clover or the snow!
    What cares he? he cannot know:
          Lay him low!

Closing Stanza:

Leave him to God’s watching eye,
Trust him to the hand that made him.
Mortal love weeps idly by:
  God alone has power to aid him.
    Lay him low, lay him low,
    In the clover or the snow! 
What cares he? he cannot know:
          Lay him low!

-George Henry Boker 

Biography: (1823–1890) Boker was an American poet, playwright, and diplomat with appointments to Constantinople and Russia.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level-0.5
Automated Readability Index-2.1
Average Grade Level 2.1 More »

Philip Freneau, Poet of the American Revolution. Library of Congress

GENRE: Poem

"September 8, Eutaw Springs"     

Opening Stanza: 

At Eutaw Springs the valiant died:  
   Their limbs with dust are covered o’er—
Weep on, ye springs, your tearful tide;  
   How many heroes are no more!

Closing Stanza:

Now rest in peace, our patriot band;
  Though far from Nature’s limits thrown,
We trust they find a happier land,
  A brighter sunshine of their own.

~Philip Freneau 

Biography:  (1752–1832) Freneau was an American poet, nationalist (also known as Federalist),  sea captain and newspaper editor; often referred to as the "Poet of the American Revolution".

NOTE: Eutaw Springs was a Revolutionary battle fought in South Carolina on Sept. 8, 1781. Technically a victory for the British, though their loss was greater than that of the Americans, and they retreated the next morning, pursued for thirty miles by the American forces.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 1.7
Automated Readability Index 2.3
Average Grade Level 4.9 More »

William Carleton. Library of Congress

GENRE: Song Lyrics

"Cover Them Over"

1st Stanza:
Cover them over with beautiful flow'rs;
Deck them with garlands, those brothers of ours,
Lying so silent by night and by day,
Sleeping the years of their manhood away,
Years they had mark'd for the joys of the brave,
Years they must waste in the sloth of the grave;

REFRAIN
Cover them over, yes, cover them over,
Parents and brother and husband and lover;
Shrine your hearts these dead heroes of ours,
And cover them over with beautiful flowers!

 

-Lyrics: Will Carleton/Music: O.B. Ormsby

Biography: (1845 – 1912) Carleton was an American poet. Carleton's poems spoke of rural life, and several were turned into songs.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 2.8
Automated Readability Index 3.5
Average Grade Level 5.5 More »

Oliver Wendall Holmes. Library of Congress

GENRE: Speech

"Our Hearts Were Touched with Fire"

 "...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."

-Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. 

Biography (1841 – 1935) Holmes was an American jurist who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932, and as Acting Chief Justice of the United States January–February 1930. 

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 8.6
Automated Readability Index 8.5
Average Grade Level 9.5 More »