Orthodox Reflections on American Memorial Day


The bodies of our war dead lie buried in hallowed plots throughout this land, and it has long been our custom as Americans to decorate their graves on Memorial Day as a token of our respect for them as beloved friends and kinsmen and of our aspiration that war may be removed from the earth forever.

Our American Memorial Day was initially known as “Decoration Day,” an opportunity to decorate many graves of the over 600,000 men who died in the US Civil War. It was, by far, our nation’s costliest war in terms of human life—about two percent of the entire population. Today that would translate to 6.5 million people. The sacrifice of the Civil War is especially felt by the Monastery of St. Demetrios in Spotsylvania, Virginia, which is surrounded by the bloodiest battlefields in America. The Confederate General Longstreet marched his troops past the site where the Monastery of St. Demetrios now is, while the Union General Hancock marched from Chancellorsville toward him. East and south was General J.E.B Stuart, while the main action of the Battle of the Wilderness took place along Plank Rd. The battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and the Wilderness were bloody, difficult encounters in a brutal war that pitted brothers against brothers.

To quote President Roosevelt on Memorial Day in 1904, “Here fought the chosen sons of the North and the South, the East and the West. The armies which on this field contended for the mastery were veteran armies, hardened by long campaigning and desperate fighting into such instruments of war as no other nation then possessed. The severity of the fighting is attested by the proportionate loss, a loss unrivaled in any battle of similar size since the close of the Napoleonic struggles; a loss which in certain regiments was from three-fourths to four-fifths of the men engaged. Every spot on this field has its own associations of soldierly duty nobly done, of supreme self-sacrifice freely rendered. The names of the chiefs who served in the two armies form a long honor roll, and the enlisted men were worthy of those who led them.

“All are at one now, the sons of those who wore the blue and the sons of those who wore the gray, and all can unite in paying respect to the memory of those who fell, each of them giving his life for his duty as he saw it.”1

From an Orthodox perspective, we know that the vast majority of the reposed lying within the battlefields of Central Virginia were outside of the Orthodox Church, as the number of Orthodox immigrants to the United States was exceedingly small in the 1860s. With that being said, there is evidence that some Greek Orthodox from New Orleans could have perished in the battles occurring in Virginia along with other Orthodox immigrants to the United States.2 Regardless, the reposed are remembered daily in the monastic life of the St. Demetrios Brotherhood, which by the great providence of God has been placed as the first ever Eastern Orthodox monastery in Central Virginia. On Memorial Day this year, the monastery served an Akathist for the Repose of the Departed along with prayers for departed veterans during the Divine Liturgy. Through these prayers, it is hoped that this long-suffering land will be sanctified and that the reposed veterans of all wars in this area will rest in peace.

Despite the great suffering and bloodshed upon this war-torn land in Central Virginia, a ray of Christian virtue was shown during the Battle of Fredericksburg (ten miles away from the monastery) that Orthodox Christians can reflect upon on this day:

During Sunday, the 14th… the two great armies lay in positions, each expecting when the morning fog lifted to be attacked by the other. There was some firing at different points along the extended lines, but nothing which approached an engagement.” Sergeant Kirkland and his comrades waited, watched, and listened. “All that day those wounded men rent the air with their groans and their agonizing cries of ‘Water! Water!’” At some point, Sergeant Kirkland could not endure the suffering cries any longer. Perhaps it was one particular man’s plea and groping hands or perhaps it was the constant dying chorus which prompted Kirkland to make his decision. Perhaps he spoke to some of his comrades and received incredulous looks. It is probable that his superior officers were unwilling to permit his request and sent him to higher authorities. Alone, he went to the brigade commander’s headquarters. Years later, General Kershaw recorded his memories of that incident.

In the afternoon the general sat in the north room, up-stairs, of Mrs. Steven’s house…surveying the field, when Kirkland came up. With an expression of indignant remonstrance pervading his person, his manner, and the tone of his voice, he said: “General, I can’t stand this.”

What is the matter, sergeant?” asked the general.

He replied: “All night and all day I have heard those poor people crying for water, and I can stand it no longer. I come to ask permission to go and give them water.”

The general regarded him for a moment with feelings of profound admiration, and said, “Kirkland, don’t you know that you would get a bullet through your head the moment you stepped over the wall?”

Yes, sir,” he said, “I know that; but if you will let me, I am willing to try it.”

After a pause the general said. “Kirkland, I ought not to allow you to run such a risk, but the sentiment which actuates you is so noble that I will not refuse your request, trusting that God may protect you. You may go.”

The sergeant’s eye lighted up with pleasure. He said, “Thank you, sir,” and ran rapidly downstairs

Kirkland returned a few seconds later to ask General Kershaw if he could raise a flag of truce while he went out onto the field. The general regretfully refused and expected Kirkland to resign the mission, but the young man expressed his desire to continue.

After filling some canteens with fresh water, Sergeant Kirkland stepped onto the battlefield. Most likely he had to walk about forty yards before reaching an enemy soldier—that was plenty of time to be shot. Surely Union soldiers had him in their rifle sights, but they waited, perhaps astonished at what they saw. Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head…and poured the precious life-giving fluid down the fever-scorched throat. This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer. By this time his purpose was well understood on both sides, and all danger was over. From all parts of the field arose fresh cries of “water, water; for God’s sake, water!” More piteous still the mute appeal of some who could only feebly lift a hand to say there, too, was life and suffering.

For an hour and a half did this ministering angel pursue his labor of mercy, nor cease to go and return until he relieved all the wounded on that part of the field. He returned to his post wholly unhurt. Who shall say how sweet his rest that winter’s night beneath the cold stars!3

The actions of Sergeant Kirkland on that fateful day bring to mind the following verse from the Book of Proverbs, “If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee.” Despite the horrors of war, true Christian virtue shone in the actions of one man on that fateful day that serve as an example of a lived-out Gospel. In the later words of General Kershaw, Sergeant Kirkland has bequeathed to the American youth—yea, to the world—an example which dignifies our common humanity.”

Let us, as Orthodox Christians, make this Memorial Day one of twofold dedication. Let us reverently honor those who have fallen in war and rededicate ourselves through prayer to the cause of peace, to the end that the day may come when we shall never have another war—never another Unknown Soldier.

O God of spirits and of all flesh, Who hast trampled-down death by death, and given life unto Thy world, do Thou the same Lord, give rest to the souls of Thy departed servants in a place of brightness, a place of green pasture, a place of repose whence all sickness, sorrow, and sighing have fled-away. As Thou art the good God Who lovest mankind, do Thou pardon their every transgression, whether of word, or deed, or thought, for Thou only art without sin, and Thy righteousness is unto all eternity, and Thy Word is truth.

For Thou art the Resurrection, the Life, and the Repose of our Orthodox warriors, those who have laid down their lives in battle for the Faith, our freedom, and our land, and likewise the veterans of wars who have gone to their rest, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, to Thy Father Who is from everlasting and to Thine All-holy, Good, and Life-creating Spirit. Now and ever, and unto ages of ages.4

Fr. David Myazha


Debbie Page 5/31/2024 1:40 am
Excellent article, Fr. David! I enjoyed reading it very much. And I also pray that these prayers may be answered. As an addendum, Sgt. Kirkland did not survive the War. He was killed at Chickamauga on Sep. 20, 1863. His remains were interred at the family cemetery on White Oak Creek in Kershaw District in South Carolina. He was reburied in 1909 at the Quaker Cemetery in Camden, SC. Also, if you go to the Chancellorsville Visitor Center, there is a picture of Sgt. Kirkland on the wall in the Memorial section where the names of all those killed in the 4 surrounding battlefields are listed in the walls.
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