The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat
The soldier’s last tattoo;
No more on life’s parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.

Bivouac of the Dead

I still remember the Memorial Day afternoon many years back when my wife and I decided to do something different with the kids. We packed the cooler, loaded up the van, and headed down the road for a destination that we purposefully kept from our young travelers.

You guessed it. Maybe fifteen minutes into the trip my oldest daughter, who was nine years-old at the time, asked that classic road-trip question parents have heard from the beginning of time: are we there yet?

No, not yet. In fact, ahead of us lay a roughly three-hour trip through Kentucky’s beautiful Land-Between-The-Lakes region, a meandering drive that included a good old-fashioned picnic stop, a buffalo farm, and even a peek at a restored farmstead. This was Memorial Day, and Memorial Day just seems custom-made for days like this. But these were all side trips, a few early summer pauses on our way to something deeper and more meaningful.

When we at last reached our destination, there was no holiday traffic. Parking? Plenty to be found. Admission? Not one dime. Accessibility? Unparalleled.

Crowded? To the contrary – save for a couple in the distance and a playful squirrel or two, we were alone in a quiet world where time stands still to the sleepy tune of honeybees drifting among the clover.

We had arrived at Fort Donelson Military Park and Cemetery outside of Dover, Tennessee. This is the place where future president Ulysses S. Grant won his first military victory, where he earned the nickname “Unconditional Surrender”, and where a glimpse of the tenacity that would bring a bloody war to a grinding halt made its first appearance. We stood beholding the eternal calm after the storm. We stood on hallowed ground.

Hundreds upon hundreds of simple marble slabs baked in the sun, silently marking the graves of unknown soldiers who gave what Lincoln termed “the last full measure of devotion”, men who died in the violence of a war ignited by the scourge of human slavery. Other graves bore the names of those beneath, boys from the same state, including many from Indiana, resting side-by-side, in what Ambrose Bierce immortalized as the Bivouac of the Dead.

To our left were the graves of many more from latter days who laid down their lives on foreign soil. A 19-year-old who died in Vietnam. A 31 year-old who died in France. A 50 year-old who died in Korea.

They died for the freedoms we now take for granted. They died for the flag so many disrespect. They died for a shining city on a hill whose light grows just a tiny bit dimmer each time we deny the unalienable right to life through the injustice of abortion.

They gave all. We are tempted to give so little.

Small American flags snapped in the breeze at each headstone, occasionally making soft popping noises that one might imagine to be rifles far off in the distance. Here and there loved ones had placed flowers. All else remained still.

“This,” I told my three children, “is what Memorial Day is all about.”

And it occurred to me that the honor of those who fought for our freedoms will never be diminished, even if no other living soul ever ventures to this place again.

“But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  President Abraham Lincoln

There will always be a place of honor for a nation that cherishes freedom and protects its people – even the smallest and most helpless.

Are we there yet?

Mike Fichter
President and CEO